Saturday, 31 October 2009

Acts of Kindness

Some time ago I wrote a piece on this blog about my encounter many years ago with the poet, critic, patron and all-round literary marvel, Jonathan Williams, who had recently died. A slightly revised - and retitled - version of the piece has recently been published, along with a great deal of fascinating material on Jonathan, in Jacket 38. You can read it here.

Property, intellectual

I just came across this extraordinary document by the son of the poet, Louis Zukofsky. What a piece of shit he appears to be, though there's something almost admirable about his determination to present himself in the worst light possible. I've had his father's work sitting on my shelf for years, but this is the first time I've felt the slightest urge to quote from it or, indeed, refer to it in any way. Zukofsky has always seemed the least interesting of the group of writers with whom he's associated. Certainly, he isn't a patch on George Oppen. I assume I'm allowed to say that without attracting the wrath of his appalling son.

I was going to post a picture of Zukofsky to go with this, risking who knows what legal brimstone from Singapore, but while I was looking I came across this one of Pound, a better-looking man and a finer poet, so I thought I'd use it instead. Fuck off, PZ.


Suddenly everything is clear... It's all one excellent adventure.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


What a difference eight years can make

I saw two old films on TV this week: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), both of them for probably the first time since they came out. It's salutary to think that the old films I used to watch as a child, from the 40s and 50s, were only half as old then as these are now. Each film was nominated for a string of Oscars and took home an award or three, albeit for very different things. In their own ways, they're both about aspiration, but what struck me most was the abyss that had opened up in the few years between them in terms of what people asked from cinema. Midnight Cowboy is visually inventive, thoughtful, nuanced. Its take on solitude is unsentimental, even cruel; nothing could be more absurd than Joe Buck's belief in himself or Ratso's faith in the healing powers of Florida. The film has the harsh clarity of vision you find in Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul, another great film about isolation and what people do in their efforts to cheat it. It's a film about growth and (dis)illusion. The party sequence is mildly embarrassing now, but what party sequence isn't after a year or so? Taken as a whole, the film is funny and sad and illuminating. It's the work of an adult (and it's heartbreaking to think Schlesinger would be making The Next Best Thing thirty years later).

By comparison, Close Encounters of the Third Kind feels like the work of a gifted child, with too many toys and no one offering the kind of tough love he so desperately needs. It's a film that seems entirely unaware of its hollowness as it strives for depth by turning on more and more lights, and getting its actors to look more and more starry-eyed at the sheer fucking size of it all. It's a cheap film, for all the money spent on it, and one that turns its back on the kind of redemption achieved, in one way or another, by Ratso and Joe. Because Dreyfuss's character learns nothing; he's too gobsmacked by his brand new friends. He just gets what he wants, which is surely the most infantile satisfaction of all.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Filth three

A very brief addendum to yesterday's addendum (I hope you're keeping up). I'm sorry to see that 8 million people ignored my advice and watched Nick Griffin on Question Time. Spineless as ever, I also watched an excerpt, but on the Guardian website so it may not count, given that the Guardian, like London, has been ethnically cleansed by decades of liberal readers. I wasn't impressed. Now I see that Griffin and his chums are complaining (in what Jan Moir would no doubt call an 'orchestrated campaign') that the programme wasn't 'fair'. Like most playground bullies, Griffin was the first to run to teacher complaining that the odds were against him, which usually means they were not actually in his favour. But the best bit was when he used the classic 'My Dad's better than your Dad' defence with Jack Straw. Griffin père apparently fought in WW2 (no, on our side) while Straw's father was a conscientious objector. Was this relevant? Not at all, unless you're a hate-mongering pseudo-patriot (so, in this case, yes). I'm surprised he didn't rub a bit of dirt on his knee and say he'd been pushed into the fence by Bonnie Greer.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Filth two

An addendum to yesterday's post about the holocaust denier who teaches at Rome's La Sapienza university. There's been a bit of a kerfuffle about it as a result of the Repubblica article, with the Dean threatening suspension and the ricercatore demanding liberty of expression, while claiming that what he thinks and what he teaches are two different things. The Billy Bunter defence option, in other words. Given the moral bankruptcy of much of the Italian academic world, riddled as it is with nepotism, corruption, plagiarism and sheer incompetence, it certainly isn't hard to believe that he thinks one thing and says another, though I'd have thought it was an odd line for someone whose subject is philosophy of the law to adopt. But the real scandal is not that one sad sack has some odd, and clearly indefensible, opinions, whether he keeps them to himself, or blogs his arms off about them, or spouts them to a classroom of university students. The real scandal is that the man moved from the university of Teramo to La Sapienza in 1991. Since then he's taught one course (in March 2009). The number of students on the course? One. One student in 18 years. In the UK, and I imagine the rest of the world, this might not seem that strange: a researcher is expected primarily to research and only secondarily to teach. In Italy, though, most researchers have significant teaching commitments, which help to disguise the dreadful paucity of their research activities in both quantitative and qualitative terms. This man, whose name I won't bother to provide - because to be googleable is to be alive -, has been receiving a substantial salary for at least 18 years. A friend of mine, who works at the same university, recently found herself teaching English to a group of more than 200 students. She has been teaching dozens of classes this size, and larger, since 1985, as a mother tongue language teacher, or lettore. Unlike ricercatori, lettori aren't considered part of the academic staff, so my friend probably earns less than half the amount our holocaust-denying chum does. I wonder what the Dean has to say about that.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


There's a piece in today's Repubblica about a holocaust denier. These people aren't really worth the effort it takes to denounce them (and if you're in the UK this evening, just don't watch Nick Griffin on Question Time - he isn't interesting or 'thought-provoking' and I guarantee he won't be trounced sufficiently to make the programme fun. Trust me on this). But this particular half-wit is interesting on two counts. The first is that he's employed by Europe's largest university, La Sapienza in Rome, where he teaches philosophy of law in a European Studies degree course. He's a researcher (at 59 years of age - this is, unfortunately, not uncommon in Italy's geriatric academe), although he claims to be a professor: this may reflect a more general problem he has with the truth. The second is that he's the provincial coordinator of the Forza Italia clubs in Seminara (Reggio Calabria) and the founder of one of these clubs in 2003. I can understand - just - why a university, on the grounds of guaranteeing intellectual freedom, might allow this kind of nonsense to be taught, although it's pretty tough on any student who might have to sit an exam with the man. But it's inconceivable to me that such a person should be allowed an administrative role in a political party that isn't, itself, committed to anti-Semitic revisionism. Does Berlusconi know about this? Or is he too busy selecting candidates for the regional elections in Putin's bed?

They know no shame

As you may already know, Berlusconi brought down the Prodi government a couple of years ago by purchasing the support, if not affection (i.e. they fucked but refused to kiss), of several senators. One of the first to slide his bum across the polished benches of the senate was a human blowfish of no discernible talent called Sergio De Gregorio, who received a tidy sum almost immediately. The last, and most clamorous, example of ideology bowing to the siren call of cash was the defection of minister of justice Clemente Mastella (you can see what I thought about all this at the time by clicking here). His name was mud for a few months, but he received his reward at the last European elections and now represents the Great One's party in Brussels, where he's recently had the indecency to complain about the crap expenses budget. No moats for Mastella, apparently - hard for a man who's lined his nest and his extended family's various nests with government lolly for the past thirty years.

Still, yesterday was a good day, in a schadenfreudery sort of way, because both De Gregorio and Mastella found themselves, bluntly, in the shit. De Gregorio was threatened with arrest for a small matter of money-laundering. Mastella, and his wife, popularly known as Lady Mastella and the president of the region of Campania, on the other hand, are under investigation for fraud, tender-fixing, distributing favours in return for votes, creaming off the customary percentages, corruption. There's a subtle whiff of Mafia about the whole affair, so it's all pretty much run of the mill. Lord and Lady Mastella, needless to say, deny everything. Well, they would, wouldn't they? as a call-girl in a more gallant age once told a judge. The cherry on the cake is that Lady Mastella has actually been denied the right to reside in Campania and six bordering provinces, including, I'm delighted to say, my own. Her world, she says, has collapsed about her. Oh good.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Each family is unhappy in its own way

Lionel Shriver has written an interesting piece on the way her family reacted to a novel in which they felt they'd been portrayed unjustly. As someone who's currently working on a story that draws on my parents' early life together, I found the article fascinating and, to some extent, admonitory. But what's really interesting when reading the comments, apart from a visceral dislike of writers, is the number of people who are unhappy that Shriver's motive for writing the piece isn't clear. Is it an apology or a defence, they cry? They don't seem to want to acknowledge that states of the heart and mind might occupy neither of these positions, or might want to draw on both; might, in other words, be ambiguous in both motive and result. If that weren't the case, work like this would be rather dull, and private, however comfortably it might sit on the misery memoir shelf. What's clear is that Shriver's relation with her family, for better or worse (and it's interesting that her black sheep brother loved the novel) will never be unmediated by the fact that she writes. But surely this is obvious from the way Shriver herself, not only through her writing, is the long-term, ongoing work of someone else, the girl born into a deeply religious family in North Carolina, according to Wikipedia, who chose a man's name at the age of fifteen and now lives in London, after spells in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast. I wonder what Margaret Ann would think of it all.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

It must be the reference to inches

As anyone who follows this blog will know, I've received some strange Amazon recommendations in the past. You know, the ones that start: "As someone who has purchased or rated...' You can see a couple of them here and here. But nothing I've had beats this one sent to writer, editor, anthologist, translator and blogger extraordinaire, Wendell Ricketts (to whom my thanks):

Lodge Logic Pre-Seasoned Cast-Iron 8-Inch Skillet

Price: $12.99

Recommended because you said you owned Hallucinating Foucault

I love it!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Nice one, Pat

I haven't posted a video by Pat Condell recently, so here's his latest.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

For what it's worth

OK, here goes. I’ve been fretting about this Polanski business ever since his arrest – like practically everyone else in the western world I hadn’t given it more than the occasional thought before that, which is part of what makes it all so problematic – because it is problematic, however much people would prefer it not to be. And I’ve found myself flip-flopping in line with whatever I’ve found myself reading, but not happy, or not entirely happy, or entirely not happy when Woody Allen threw his ill-advised oar in. I’ve been shocked by the details in the trial transcript, which I’m sure you’ll have read by now, perturbed by the knee-jerk support of people in the film business, perturbed, more ambiguously, by the people whose rage seems so insistent, and personal, as though they’d been drugged themselves, and sodomised (because abortion was already an issue?), and wondered, as the girl must have done at some point during what should have been a photo session (though for what? with whom?), where her mother was and why she’d been left alone with this famous, influential man, as though these people – columnists, opinion-makers, moralists - were victims themselves. As though they’d been raped themselves, and had only just remembered, because, let’s face it, every journalist in the western world has known for three decades – during which they watched The Pianist (*****) and Frantic (****) and Oliver Twist (**) - what Polanski did, and remained silent, as though the girl had never existed. This isn’t what they say now, of course. But the strange thing, when you reach the punch line of most of these intensely-written and passionate articles, is that it doesn’t seem to be about the girl at all. The people who appear to be most upset don’t put themselves in her shoes, but in those of her parents, as though the only way the abuse of a teenager can be appreciated is through the idea of one’s emotional property, one’s own child, being damaged, although this didn’t appear to be an issue at the time, to the people (person?) whose child she was. What about her? I wonder. Why can’t we ask ourselves what it might have been like to be her? Isn’t that vivid, and dreadful, enough? But the big question seems to be: How would you feel if he’d done that to your daughter? And to deal with this sense of displaced outrage these people invoke the notion of justice, that vast transparent edifice in which all deserts are just. Suddenly all their capacity for empathy, employed so liberally (if that isn’t too dirty a word) in defence of an imaginary victim’s putative parents (How would you feel...?), is replaced by the law, the law that treats all of us as one, as equals, whether we’re Nazi war criminals or their victims, or their victims’ children. Well, I can’t argue with that. That’s what law does, it’s inexorable, and indifferent, and grinds on, and so on, and we couldn’t live (safely) without it. And, of course, that’s what it ought to be doing with Polanski, and now that it is I only wonder, if perhaps it had all been a little clearer after he’d plea bargained and then run scared because it looked as though someone, a judge, was about to pull a fast one, whether it might not have been better done three decades ago, when the crime took place. Still, this is what justice does, and it does it by pretending that the state of the judicial art it applies has a kind of permanence and isn’t influenced by mood and ethical fashions, but somehow rises above all that, and is atemporal, and belongs to all of us. And as a social being, and respecter of justice, I respond to that, however much it suspends disbelief. But justice isn’t all we have. Because we know that justice may be absolute, but the truth is never that. The truth is temporal, and relative, and riddled with doubt. Maybe what our heart of hearts should be concerned with is not what justice requires, but what it must be like to be the other, to put ourselves not only in the easy, blood-stained, commodious shoes of the victim, but in the narrower, less forgiving, toe-pinching footwear of the perpetrator.