Tag Archives: Patrick McGuinness

A Journey into Memory

29 Jun

 

Bouillon: Panorama

Bouillon: Panorama

When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.

I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’

Other People's CountriesIn his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.

These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.

Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:

‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’

There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.

Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:

‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’

 

 

 

 

According to . . .

18 Apr

 

According to

Tiffany Atkinson.

 

Once, about the time you start to notice trees

and he found out his wife was not his wife

in any sense but name, Elijah took the dog,

two apples from the sideboard, and went out.

 

Not long afterwards, he came upon an old friend

bent beneath the bonnet of his car, cursing

every sprocket of combustion engines. What

do you suppose the point is? asked Elijah.

 

And the friend replied, I have to be there.

Throw your spanners down and come with me,

Elijah said. And so the friend did. And his name

was Tomos, after whom he never thought to ask.

 

And Elijah was amazed. Next there was a daughter

which, close up, they didn’t know. But Tomos said

she looked a lot like his girl would’ve had she lived.

He split one apple threeways, and the girl laughed.

 

And her laugh was as a pocketful of loose change,

as the moment when you down your pint and dance.

Her name was Manon. She was heading to the clinic.

Then she got her mobile phone out. Mam? she said.

 

So from there they went north, telling stories. Till

they came upon a farmer, bitter drunk, for all his fields

had failed. They listened, picking fruit seeds from their teeth,

and where those fell sprang cider-presses, booming.

 

Soon a crowd came out to see what had been happening.

I killed a man, said one man, looking thin. Shit happens,

said Elijah. Sell your house, give all the money to his folks

and walk with us. The man did. He gave nobody his name.

 

Meanwhile the crowds grew till there wasn’t room

to slide a slice of toast between them. Tomos asked,

what’s this about then? And Elijah said, just as you

left your hurtful car to walk with me, so this lot feel.

 

Look at the rhododendrons! They don’t give a toss

about the funding cuts, the polar bears. They do

their own thing. Throw your keys into that hedge,

ignore the cameras. Be your own true kicking self.

 

So Tomos did. He was a simple man, and able

to draw truth like tears from anyone. Elijah said,

you know the way that pressure-regulating valves

secure the rear-brake lines for heavy braking?

 

Tomos nodded. Well, Elijah said, you see, that’s you.

At this the grief beat out like crows, and Tomos felt

a hatching, in the space, of light. Elijah felt it too. And

where they left a third, unheard-of apple, grew a hamlet,

 

grew a village, grew a town, where people started over hope

fuller than all the Born Again Virgins of America.

These are the words of Manon, set down with the baby

on her knee. Elijah Tomos, he’ll be. All this happened.

 

 

From Catulla, Bloodaxe, 2011. For a review of this book, click here.

 

 

 

 

The Vagabond’s Breakfast: a perfect stocking filler (wash thoroughly after use)

18 Dec

 

Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’

Scott says:

The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.

The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:

Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”

It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).

Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.

 

 

 

 

Radio Bards and an Homuncular Misfit

19 Nov

Saturday Morning Porridge

Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live.  I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.

Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.

The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.

The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.

David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making.  And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:

 

. . .  For a moment I thought

it might be the same bird that flew

from the glove of Mabon son of Modron

into the mouth of a shepherd

known to Henry Vaughan.

It had appeared as effortlessly as

a piece of clothing I never knew I had

until I bent to pick it up . . . .

. . .  Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain

but it didn’t go away and it did change everything

about that retreat I’d planned, considered

and thought I’d carefully arranged.

As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,

But it wouldn’t go. I tried

to be as fierce as a vixen

driving off her cubs.

Defied, the crow would glide into the trees

but return within an hour.

Soon it started waiting near my window.

 

Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:

 

One night, with the hostel

all asleep, I waited mesmerised

beneath the fig tree where

Brân the Blessed perched,

Both as Bendigeidfran

and as Branwen

son and daughter

of their liquid father Llyr,

whose half-speech I now learned.

While soft, slow, pearls of rain

sparkling by kitchen light

fell in glistening strings,

dollops of scintillating guano

puddled freshly opened oysters

on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.

 

The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.

Dog waiting for Blanco to stop blogging and take him for a walk, finally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last hundred days

17 Sep

 

Within weeks of publication Patrick McGuinness’s debut novel, The Last Hundred Days found itself on the Man Booker long list, and deservedly so, although it failed to make the shortlist on the 5th September. Whatever. Set in Bucharest, the novel reawakens in the reader that state of stunned disbelief in the autumn of 1989 as successive Soviet bloc countries underwent bloodless revolutions, until there was only Romania there at the end of the queue, making a bloody hash of it. The novel describes the despicable oppression and deprivation of the Romanian people in the build-up to that coup, and paints a sordid picture of the corruption and hypocrisy of their rulers.

At the same time it feels oddly contemporary, especially in the way that a grasping elite escape the consequences of their actions and rise above the chaos that they perpetrate. Not that the Ceausescu’s themselves did, of course, their messy trial and execution can still be viewed on youtube, and it provides a resonant coda to the reading of this novel.

The opening chapter is superb, its discourse on the state of boredom offering a kind of conceptual counterpoint to the unfurling narrative, with its cast of impressively drawn characters, that is almost Tolstoyan in scope: “In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.” McGuinness is an accomplished poet and writes with superb clarity. The novel is littered with aperçus of a brilliance that has the reader reaching for a pencil. Here is Bucharest: “a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.” And here is the unctuous consular attaché Wintersmith (straight out of Greene-land) and the British expat community, “where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably”; here is the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself.” And here is the grim Stoicu, interior minister and Ceausescu sidekick, with the “eyes of a man who sought in those around him the lowest motivation and always found it.”

I was fascinated to learn that Ceausescu was so paranoid that he would duplicate, no, triplicate his daily motorcade through Bucharest with simultaneous decoy performances in other parts of the city: “sirens, cars, Ceausescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceausescu’s dog, and he even had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.”

McGuinness was himself in Bucharest just prior to the fall of the regime, and his observations appear to have the scent of authenticity. This is a novel that rages and flows by turn, but rarely disappoints, tugging caustically towards its inevitable denouement.

 

A version of this review appeared in The Independent on 8 September 2011.

 

 

 

Hobo with a Shotgun

30 Jul

What is a picture of  Joseph Roth, chronicler of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire doing beneath this heading? Did Roth have a shotgun? Was he a hobo? In a way, the answer is yes to both questions, indirectly.

Last night I went to see this film simply on the strength of its title. Mrs Blanco chose not to accompany me after inspecting the trailer, so I went with Robin, who had dropped by with a copy of Patrick McGuinness’s excellent The Last Hundred Days, this week longlisted for the Man Booker prize, which I am reviewing for a newspaper and which will no doubt appear on this blog at a later date, and which I urge you all to read.

I do not however urge you to go and see Hobo with a Shotgun, not unless you have a very strong stomach. If you feel tempted to press play, and can endure the trailer, please be assured that it really does not do justice to the gratuitous nastiness of the film. There was a time, in London in the late 1970s when I enjoyed watching low budget exploitation or grindhouse movies: Death Weekend and Shivers are two that come to mind. But I don’t seem to have it in me now.

 

 

I’m not going to review this schlock, but I can reveal that apart from the early decapitation, there is also a graphic decocking, or involuntary penectomy. The script is pretty dire, although there is at least one memorable line: when the hobo, having saved his lady friend from a brutal encounter with a corrupt cop and, concealed by her beneath the corpse of the newly exploded policeman, they return to her apartment to prepare for their getaway, he comes out with: “I just gotta wipe this guy’s asshole off my face.” But for all the film’s many shortcomings – can we speak of shortcomings in a film from which we have such low expectations? – Rutger Hauer is craggily splendid.

And that brings me to the point: Rutger Hauer has played a vagrant before, in the film version of The Legend of the Holy Drinker, a little known gem, directed by Ermanno Olmi and released in 1988. The movie is based on the novella by Roth, himself a writer in the time-honoured tradition of the poet-vagabond. In the story, which is a kind of parable or fairy tale emanating, it seems to me, from the deep core of an alcoholic’s delirious wish-fulfilment, the beggar Andreas is presented with two hundred francs, which he promises to return, but in which task he repeatedly fails. However his humility and humanity constitute redemptive qualities amid the dissolution of his life, and the effect is oddly uplifting. In stark contrast to Hobo with a Shotgun, it is a powerfully atmospheric and exquisitely tender film, beautifully shot in Paris, notable also for being the last performance of the excellent Anthony Quayle. The extract below shows their first meeting near the bridge where Andreas sleeps.

 

 

If you cannot get hold of the film, try reading the novella: The Legend of the Holy Drinker was republished by Granta in 2001. Its author himself ended his days as an alcoholic in Paris, the city he loved, and to which he fled after Hitler’s rise to power. He was waiting, like other Jewish exiles, to be ‘wiped out’ once the Nazis showed up, as he knew they would. He lived in a cheap hotel and literally drank himself to death, passing away in hospital following days of delirium tremens in May 1939.

 

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