The Requiem of Anna Akhmatova

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Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem is a perfect piece

Of mid-20th Century epyllia


Anna Akhmatova is one of the greatest ever Russian poets, essayists & translators. During the climate of Stalinist oppression, between 1935 and 1940 she composed she composed the bulk of her long narrative poem, Rekviem. It was whispered line by line to her closest friends, who quickly committed to memory what they had heard. Akhmatova would then burn in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written Rekviem. If found by the secret police, this narrative poem could have unleashed another wave of arrests for subversive activities. The poem would be published for the first time in Russia only during the years of perestroika, in the journal Oktiabr’ (October) in 1989. Mixing various genres and styles & forms, the poem’s scatteredness reflects the disintegration of self and the world that the old Russian order was experiencing- Anna had aristocratic blood.


Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.
[1961]

INSTEAD OF A PREFACE

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]

DEDICATION

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.
[March 1940]

INTRODUCTION
[PRELUDE]

It happened like this when only the dead
Were smiling, glad of their release,
That Leningrad hung around its prisons
Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
Short songs of farewell
To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
As they, in regiments, walked along –
Stars of death stood over us
As innocent Russia squirmed
Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
Of the black marias.

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I
You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God. . .
The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold sweat
On your brow – I will never forget this; I will gather

To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
[1935. Autumn. Moscow]

II

Silent flows the river Don
A yellow moon looks quietly on
Swanking about, with cap askew
It sees through the window a shadow of you
Gravely ill, all alone
The moon sees a woman lying at home
Her son is in jail, her husband is dead
Say a prayer for her instead.

III

It isn’t me, someone else is suffering. I couldn’t.
Not like this. Everything that has happened,
Cover it with a black cloth,
Then let the torches be removed. . .
Night.

IV

Giggling, poking fun, everyone’s darling,
The carefree sinner of Tsarskoye Selo
If only you could have foreseen
What life would do with you –
That you would stand, parcel in hand,
Beneath the Crosses, three hundredth in line,
Burning the new year’s ice
With your hot tears.
Back and forth the prison poplar sways
With not a sound – how many innocent
Blameless lives are being taken away. . .
[1938]

V

For seventeen months I have been screaming,
Calling you home.
I’ve thrown myself at the feet of butchers
For you, my son and my horror.
Everything has become muddled forever –
I can no longer distinguish
Who is an animal, who a person, and how long
The wait can be for an execution.
There are now only dusty flowers,
The chinking of the thurible,
Tracks from somewhere into nowhere
And, staring me in the face
And threatening me with swift annihilation,
An enormous star.
[1939]

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VI

Weeks fly lightly by. Even so,
I cannot understand what has arisen,
How, my son, into your prison
White nights stare so brilliantly.
Now once more they burn,
Eyes that focus like a hawk,
And, upon your cross, the talk
Is again of death.
[1939. Spring]

VII
THE VERDICT

The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.

I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again. . .

But how. The hot summer rustles
Like a carnival outside my window;
I have long had this premonition
Of a bright day and a deserted house.
[22 June 1939. Summer. Fontannyi Dom (4)]

VIII
TO DEATH

You will come anyway – so why not now?
I wait for you; things have become too hard.
I have turned out the lights and opened the door
For you, so simple and so wonderful.
Assume whatever shape you wish. Burst in
Like a shell of noxious gas. Creep up on me
Like a practised bandit with a heavy weapon.
Poison me, if you want, with a typhoid exhalation,
Or, with a simple tale prepared by you
(And known by all to the point of nausea), take me
Before the commander of the blue caps and let me glimpse
The house administrator’s terrified white face.
I don’t care anymore. The river Yenisey
Swirls on. The Pole star blazes.
The blue sparks of those much-loved eyes
Close over and cover the final horror.
[19 August 1939. Fontannyi Dom]

IX

Madness with its wings
Has covered half my soul
It feeds me fiery wine
And lures me into the abyss.

That’s when I understood
While listening to my alien delirium
That I must hand the victory
To it.

However much I nag
However much I beg
It will not let me take
One single thing away:

Not my son’s frightening eyes –
A suffering set in stone,
Or prison visiting hours
Or days that end in storms

Nor the sweet coolness of a hand
The anxious shade of lime trees
Nor the light distant sound
Of final comforting words.
[14 May 1940. Fontannyi Dom]

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X
CRUCIFIXION

Weep not for me, mother.
I am alive in my grave.

1.
A choir of angels glorified the greatest hour,
The heavens melted into flames.
To his father he said, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me!’
But to his mother, ‘Weep not for me. . .’
[1940. Fontannyi Dom]

2.
Magdalena smote herself and wept,
The favourite disciple turned to stone,
But there, where the mother stood silent,
Not one person dared to look.
[1943. Tashkent]

EPILOGUE

1.
I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I’ve learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That’s why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.

2.
The hour has come to remember the dead.
I see you, I hear you, I feel you:
The one who resisted the long drag to the open window;
The one who could no longer feel the kick of familiar
soil beneath her feet;
The one who, with a sudden flick of her head, replied,

‘I arrive here as if I’ve come home!’
I’d like to name you all by name, but the list
Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
So,
I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble words
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing. Even in new grief.
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
That’s how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
On the eve of my remembrance day.
If someone someday in this country
Decides to raise a memorial to me,
I give my consent to this festivity
But only on this condition – do not build it
By the sea where I was born,
I have severed my last ties with the sea;
Nor in the Tsar’s Park by the hallowed stump
Where an inconsolable shadow looks for me;
Build it here where I stood for three hundred hours
And no-one slid open the bolt.
Listen, even in blissful death I fear
That I will forget the Black Marias,
Forget how hatefully the door slammed and an old woman
Howled like a wounded beast.
Let the thawing ice flow like tears
From my immovable bronze eyelids
And let the prison dove coo in the distance
While ships sail quietly along the river.
[March 1940. Fontannyi Dom]

Birth of a Poet 8: Rome, then Home

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Byron at the pyre of his friend, the poet PB Shelly

Concluding the 1998 European adventure
Which made Damian Beeson Bullen a poet


I am writing this in 2019, from my memory rather than typing up journals ad verbum. I will perform some of the telling with those stanzas of Ottova Rima I composed in Portsmouth, through the summer of 1999, as in them are my brightest recollections. As a general outline to my next few weeks on the road, from Le Spezia I first called in at Viareggio, a few miles down the coast, to the very spot where Shelley’s corpse was washed up & burnt, the painting of which began the whole ‘The Death of Shelley’ quest in the first place. I slept in my sleeping bag & built a little fire if I recall.

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These were the very waters in which Shelley had drowned. He had been caught by one of the freak, sudden, snap-storms which lash this portion of the golden Tuscan coast. One of their number had consumed Shelley & his two companions, leaving forever a poet’s watery shrine. Shelley, in fact, had never learnt to swim. He was also an extemely proud individual & his turning away of help from the Italian fishermen while in the middle of the storm sealed the fate of himself, Edward Williams’ & the young Italian lad they had taken with them. These two factors had combined once before, upon Lake Geneva in 1816. Then, it was Shelley & Byron who were out sailing & caught by a sudden squall. Ther boat began to sink & Byron, being a swimmer strong enough to swim the Hellspont between Europa & Asia, offered to rescue his friend. But Shelley was adamant he would not be rescued & determined himself on going down with the boat. It took Byron’s invocation of Mary Shelley’s name to compel Shelley to consent to his rescue, but once on dry land he would never really get over this abashment of his pride.the-death-of-shelley-2.jpg


(from) THE DEATH OF SHELLEY (1998)- Canto 3

Twas Leigh Hunt who came on O so fast,
Bringing bad news to below Byron’s window,
By George, George, we have found him at last,
Wash’d up on the sands of Viareggio,
The anxious waitings of these ten days pass’d,
Bares sad fruit as his fate we now now!”
“Very well,” said his lordship, “We sleep here tonight,
Then tomorrow we rise & ride with first light.”

Onwards, onwards, onwards rides the plot,
Soon all of the players shall be in their place;
Past the hovels of Viareggio two horses trot
As tho’ drawing a hearse at a funeral pace,
They reach the long beach, ever humid & hot,
Today the sands lie like a dead, desert waste,
Then stride to the side of the shimmering sea –
Awaiting with handshakes is grim-faced Trelawney!

In the minute of which a lonely lifetime lasts
The swollen sands are stack’d into a heap,
Hunt stands agape, Byron stands aghast
As Shelley is unslumber’d from his sunken sleep
In horrid exhumation! his life’s light has pass’d,
Leaves a crack’d & blacken’d corpse where rotting flesh-things creep,
“Is – is – that a body?” Byron whispers, bleeding white,
“Aye!” sighs Trelawney, “Tis not a pretty sight!”

With quickening quiet comes the onrushing roar
Of the hush’d seawashes in violences,
Shelley’s featherlite frame two young brutes bore,
Carried to the pyre amidst silences,
& crown’d! Hunt begins to over him pour
Frankincense & other oily essences –
A poet soon burning upon the gutted gyre,
His soul to the stars, his body to the fire.


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From Viareggio I spent a few more days in Pisa with the boys & my music, while hurtling thro’ canto 2 of my poem, which took only a week. Pisa is a perfect size, with everywhere walkable in about half an hour or so. The legacy of its empire is notable in its many noble buildings & beautiful churches. It is no wonder, then, that Byron & Shelley chose it as their place of residence. During my own stay I would often sit outside Byron’s old house & watch the sun set into the Arno, with its delicious blend of colours. Then, as I concluded the canto by Byron’s house, I was ready to go to Rome.

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Heading down south on the click-clack train track
Its two AM, the conductor finds me
With a bag of books, the rags on my back
And in my hands a copy of Shelley.
I expect a Hampshire inspector’s flak
But he hands me his poetic pity –
Six hours later, the twilight before dawn,
I walk the streets of Rome awaitin’ morn.

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The poet in Rome, 2012

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I had chatted to Megadeth previously, who gave me two addresses – one for free nun’s food & another for the Forte Prenestina – a place where I could & has always been an oasis for me at the heart of the city ever since. I was only there last October reviewing a play, for example. I also went to see a play not far from the fort which starred a beautiful young actress I’d met on the lawn by the tower of Pisa. A delightful experience which found a way into my poem & my heart. On what was to be my last full day there I met a gorgeous young actress named Manuela, & we spent the day in perfect harmony. She was travelling with a show & had performed in Pisa the previous night. On discovering we were both bound for the capital the next day, it was agreed that I would come along to see the play. Here is a stanza I wrote to remember the occasion.

She is to me as the first star of eve
With ocean eyes & smile of teeth pearl white,
And breasts & bum like you wouldn’t believe,
My heart melteth at the sensual sight
Of beauties first essence, which I receive
In raptures, as we, by the Arno’s flight
Are as one with the sweet serene sundown –
“Meet me in Rome,” we kiss & she leaves town.

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DBB & Victor Pope, visiting the Fort, 2011
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Inside the Fort, 2011
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DBB still composing poetry at Shelley’s tomb, 2009

As I completed ‘The Death of Shelley’ in the Protestant Cemetary in Rome, on my beloved grandmother’s birthday (16th May), after two months of travel I was seriously ready to get home. I was penniless at the time, except for the emergency ten pound note which I had held in reserve, plus a tin of Hungarian beef I had been carrying with me since Budapest. After cashing in my money I immediately bought an ice-cream, reducing my funds by a further pound. Obviously this was not enough to get me home, but I had dodged the fares on trains from Belgium to Budapest & all the way to Rome, so felt confident of hitting the Channel coast at least.

I cash’d in my emergency tenner,
& with canned beef I bought in Hungary,
To busk up a little extra lira,
I hunger’d up the length of Italy
Whereon my last evensongs of Pisa,
Already it all seem’d a memory,
For Kapitano had moved on to France
To work the World Cup with a beggar’s dance.

I managed to jump trains all the way to Turin, stopping off in Pisa for one last romantic night of busking. From Turin my plan was to catch a train to the French border & from there make my way to Calais. However, things did not go to plan, for as my next train pulled into its destination, I was surprised to see, not a small border station, but tall statues, gorgeous pillars & a vast marble floor. Then in huge letters above me I read the words MILANO. I was now over two hundred miles off course in completely the wrong direction.  Cursing my stupidity & sheer bad luck I got out my map & worked on another plan. The quickest way home was north through Switzerland & Germany, so I caught the last train that night toward the Swiss border.

So leaving gentle Arno to her flow,
Jumping trains to an uncertain future,
I once again view’d Viareggio,
Le Spezia, then pass’d thro Genoa,
Spent sunset in the streets of Torino,
Then caught a sleeper to the French border –
But travel does not always go to plan,
Somehow my train had landed to Milan!

The atmosphere on that journey was surreal, tracing the outline of the Italian alps as they sat black against the moonless gloom. It was sometime after midnight when I pulled up to Switzerland, & cheerily made my way to passport control. Unfortunately, when asked how much money I had I could only offer a few lira & a tin of Hungarian beef, & was promptly refused entry. The policeman planted a no entry stamp on the back of the page which sported my signature & address in Britain. Then he walked me to the border & tossed me into Italy, past a number of curious Italian police.

I was now sev’ral hundred miles of course,
& how it happen’d did not understand,
But youth is driven by a hidden force,
& made me jump a train to Switzerland
At whose harsh border found a smart resource
For they had rejected me out of hand –
I look’d like a tramp – past midnight grew tense,
Until I found a hole shewn from the fence.

Being twenty-one at the time, & in no position to be stuck at the border, I proceeded to tear out the page with the no entry stamp, find a hole in the fence & sneak into Switzerland. I made my way thro the empty streets like someone who had just escaped from Colditz, returning once again to the train station. There, while looking on the times of trains, I suddenly heard a “HALT!” & turned to see the same Swiss policeman who had thrown me out fumbling at his holster for his gun, which was soon trained on me. It is a strange sensation to have a gun aimed at you & so I thrust my hands in the air & awaited my fate. This was an ignominous kick up the ass, literally, back into Italy past the laughing Italian gaurds.

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This was the final straw for me, & so once again returning through the hole in the fence I travelled into Switzerland for another five miles to the next station & waited for a train. The sun was just beginning to rise at this point, with dawn ever brightening the scene. Unluckily for me this made me visible & I began to worry as a police car suddenly began to drive toward the station, park up & eject two burly looking men.
“Your passport please?” they asked on discovering my nationality. I could tell they knew something was wrong, but looking through the passport could find nothing. It was very difficult to hold back the cheer as they gave me back my passport & drove away. However, that cheer did come when the 5 am train arrived & whisked me North.

Things would soon take another curious turn. I made Zurich safely enough, & pottered around on the trams for an hour or two, before catching a train to the capital, Bern. However, the mornings exertions had worn me down & I soon fell asleep, instead of jumping the train. Imagine my surprise, then, to be woken up at Bern by the conductor & two policemen, who frogmarched me off the train into a room at the station. From there I was taken to a holding cell, shared by four West Africans & a Kosovan, all in the country illegally. All there was top do there is eat the megre meals, take an hours exercise a day & watch endless reels of MTV. Fortunately for me I had a passport & it was soon decided that I would be deported.

I shyall always carry one incident with me. Not long after being locked up I desired the return of my notebooks & pen. After pouring my soul into the composition of the Death of Shelley, I wanted the manuscript close to me. The thought of it being lost by the Swiss autharities rankled me, & besides, there were a few corrections that needed making. So I began to press the contact button in order to get its return, but my request was refused. This wound me up, so I proceeded to tap out a percussive rythym on the buzzer, which I knew would infuriate the gaurds. A few moments later I had been taken to a solitary cell of confinement – & still no notebook! So I proceeded to go through the first album by the stone roses at the top of my voice, acapella style with bongo accompaniament, & got as far as She Bangs the Drums before five massively-forearmed gaurds burst in with a flurry of punches, calming me down somewhat.This I completely ignored & insisted on the return of my notebook. Finally my protestations were heard & I was given the poem & immediately fell as quiet as a mouse.

They marched me on a fancy Swiss Air Jet,
Handcuffed until the very last moment,
For I had slipped right thro their border net,
Back to mine own contree had to be sent,
On fine french wine my flight home growing wet
& thanks to their filthy rich government –
I had thirty-five pounds worth of Swiss Francs,
To sexy stewardesses kiss’d my thanks.

Two mornings later I was taken from the station, placed in a cell upon a train & transported to Zurich, where I was given twenty-five pounds in Swiss Franxcs & a seat on a swiss air jet bound for London. The cuffs were finally taken off me at the entrance to the plane, from where I found a nice window seat & helped myself to the free wine the attractive stewardesses insisted on giving me. Two hours later I had landed home in Heathrow, a little worse for wear from the wine but immensely relieved to be home. Whether it was enormous luck or not, ever since that moment I have been convinced that, if the poet will devote himself to the art, then the muses will always look after their own.

That evening I turned up at my pal’s house in Hackney and finally opened my tin of Hungarian beef. I can’t recall it’s taste too well, I think it was good enough. Maybe I should have waited to sober up off the Swiss wine to fully appreciate it!


PASSPORT POST-SCRIPT

I travelled widely following those amazing few days that whisked me from Rome to London, & had only ever had one bit of trouble with what is, in essence, an invalid passport. In 2004 I sailed through the enigmatic archipelago to the East of Stockholm & across the Baltic sea to Tallin, the charming capital of Estonia. I was making my way to the city to visit some friends of mine, & was very much looking forward to arriving. Unfortunately, at passport control I was very laisez faire about the matter & chose the rather podgy, matron like battleaxe of a woman to show my documents to, resulting in the denial of entry. I quick call to the British embassy resulted in them agreeing to get me a new one – but this would have reduced my vodka drinking funds & also given the nasty Swiss border gaurd an eventual karmic victory. With my friends waiting for me it was quickly agreed that I would go with them to the embassy & leave my bags at the port, collecting them later on when I had a new passport. Once inside the country, & suitably fortified on strong Finnish vodka, I decided to try my luck back at the port – especially as I remembered the five ecstasy tablets that I had left in my luggage!

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Talinn Passenger Port

On return to the harbour, past the leviathian soviet architecture & enigmatic Estonia city walls, I was delighted to find different members of staff in the room where my bags were. I quickly smiled, picked them up & hurriedly made my way tout of the complex, only to bump into the very woman who had denied me entry in the first place.
“So you have got a new passport,” she said.
“Ehh! yes,” I quickly answered.
“Then welcome to Estonia!” she said & I was off in a taxi in a flash.

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THE BIRTH OF A POET

************************

Chapter 1: The Orient Express

Chapter 2: The Grand Canal

Chapter 3: Florence Nightingales

Chapter 4: Invoking the Muse

Chapter 5: Working Livorno

Chapter 6: San Guilliano

Chapter 7: Gulf of Poets

Chapter 8: Rome, then Home

Remembering Mikey Smith

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Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger Robinson & Anthony Wall
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sun 18 Aug, The New York Times Main Theater


With typical insouciance the dapper master of reggae poetry graciously bats aside the initial question of compere, Jamacain-raised author Leone Ross. He takes to the mic, regaling the Book Festival’s reverential, po-faced audience with the best known work of his friend and fellow genre-founding father, Mikey Smith.

Mi Cyann Believe it

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Mikey Smith – social worker, writer, died in murky circumstances at a political rally in ’83 – composed a strident paean to the Jamaican diaspora, specifically those who landed on these shores. Smith’s first visit to Britain was documented in the 1982 film Upon Westminster Bridge by BAFTA-winning film maker Antony Wall – who was also on the Book Fest’s three-strong panel. The other being all round chief Rocker Roger Robinson.

Robinson, a protean talent, is affectionately teased for his whippersnapper status in the eyes of the godfather of Jamaican patois, who later delivers a blistering ‘half-poem, half-rant’ referencing Grenfel Tower and Windrush issues that LKJ avers ‘show us how far we have to go ‘ Happily it seems the legacy of LKJ and Mikey Smith is in safe hands.

Anthony Wall contributed a port-stained whine about the plethora oflLiterary festivals, the horrors of free wine, and the insight that Mikey Smith was not only the most important poet of the 20th Century, but almost as good as some English poets; whilst reducing the immeasurable contribution of the man recoiling beside him to absurdity by describing it as a ‘A fuck you to the man as we would call him.’ I kid you not!

After 15 minutes of inchoate waffling, the following Q&A consisted of the usual ‘I love you, you’re great, you saved my life sycophancy,’ along with the inevitable posh nob bleating a surreally unconnected anecdote about a pony before, RR ripped it up and finally LKJ himself had the audiences’ eyes brimming with his peroration to his dead father .

A true master

Irish Adam

 

Lin Anderson and Jacob Ross: Forensic Cops Delve into Horror

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
20th August 2019


Lin Anderson, well known in Scotland as a Tartan Noir crime novelist and screen writer, has just published Sins of the Dead, her fourteenth book in the Rhona McLeod series. She is also the cofounder of Scotland’s annual festival of crime writing, ‘Bloody Scotland’. Anderson was born in Greenock, but with her latest novel located on the Isle of Skye in the west of Scotland, it was an inspired move to pair her for a discussion with fellow crime writer Jacob Ross. Currently living in Leeds, but born in Grenada, Ross has just finished ‘Black Rain Falling’, a crime novel set in the ‘fictional’ Caribbean island of Camaho. Following on from The Bone Readers, Black Rain Falling is the second book in his four-book series, the Camaho Quartet. The name is a nod to ‘Camerhogne’, the original Kalinago people’s name for Grenada. Ross has been a master of the short story form for several decades now, and is a polymath of the literary world; working also as an editor, creative writing tutor and judge. Al Hunter confidently chaired a lively and playful discussion that successfully drew out the author’s motivations and struggles in the process of writing crime fiction.

There are strong similarities between the protagonists of each book, though carrying out their work on either side of the Atlantic. Rhona MacLeod and Michael ‘Digger’ Digson are both forensic scientists, who have sidekicks with their own strong and memorable characters. There are also similarities in both authors’ approach to language and their defence of their use of local dialect in their writing. Ross has been speaking of this for many years, suggesting that the reader should not be patronised in order to enjoy a book. Anderson spoke of her jealousy at the musicality and rhythm of Caribbean cadence and yet both shared their fights with agents and publishers to keep important words and phrases that, if replaced with standard English, would lose the nuance, the emotion and the exactness of the cultural reference. Ross appealed to the sophistication of British readers who delight in the beauty of a different turn of phrase and will willingly work a little to understand unfamiliar words. Anderson shared her insistence that the evocative Scots word ‘boaked’ could and would not be replaced with the English word ‘gagged’. The conversation turned to the liberal amount of swearing in both books, and knowing both Grenada and Glasgow pretty well, I know it would be hard to ‘keep it real’ without some effing and blinding. Chair Al Senter wondered whether our more liberal times allowed for this, and the audience chuckled at Ross’ 85 year old mother’s disapproval, exclaiming that “I did not bring you up like that!”, but Ross pointed out the irony in taking offence at taboo language while simultaneously enjoying gory details of grisly violence. Often writers mention the strange freedom that comes with the death of their parents, and for Anderson the embarrassment had come from writing about sex.

jacobross.jpgRoss began his writing career with several collections of short stories, and began to move across to novel writing with his 2008 novel Pynter Bender, about a blind, mystical young boy growing up in Grenada during the oppressive regime of Grenada’s first Prime Minister Eric Gairy. He confessed to being rather snobbish about the ‘crime genre’, of which he knew little until he turned to writing crime fiction. A choice made from noticing that the Caribbean had no crime novels to speak of, even though, as he said wryly, ‘we certainly have the resources’. He remained sceptical about two thirds into writing the novel, when he was struck by the huge range of possibility that the genre gives to comment on everything from relationships and society to human nature. At the bidding of his doctor son, he took on the formidable task of thoroughly researching the world of a forensic osteologist, a challenge that he surprisingly began to relish, having been a biology teacher once upon a time. It wasn’t just the intricacies of human biology that fascinated him, but the changes in the law that required evidence rather than mere suspicion to try a case adequately. He was also fascinated by the instances where loyalty and justice are in conflict, which forces some tough questions about reality. Also a former teacher, Anderson grew up with a protective Detective Inspector father and took a forensic science course at Glasgow University, the experience and knowledge of which endears her to forensic scientists who appreciate the authenticity of her stories. They were both invited to read from their books. Ross’ new book, Black Rain Falling, is not available until March, so we were only able to snatch a tantalising glimpse of book two, which reveals much more of the proper but formidable character Ms Stanislaus.

Ross instead read from the beginning of The Bone Readers where he hints of the struggles of Digger the reluctant forensic scientist, instantly plunging us into the heated atmosphere of a murderous fight in ‘Camaho’. Known for his sparse style honed from writing short stories, no word is wasted. Anderson’s pieces were inspired by a walk with her friend’s dog on the Isle of Skye. The rich description of the pieces transported us to a forlorn area up in the woods, where the hoarse call of the bird and the dog’s insistent whining made us shiver in anticipation. It was a relief to meet a happy looking Blaze the collie and its owner mingling with the crowds at the book signing table a few minutes later.

Lisa Williams

Studying the Zeitgeist through the Words of our Authors

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
2019


Authors are like the yardstick of an age. It cannot be denied that we live in fairly tumultuous times – no one is being bombed or anything, but the unregulated powers of the internet in an increasingly media-driven populist world is not helping the well-being, both physical & mental, of the planet. In response, I picked out three talks at the Edinburgh International Book Fest to see what our intelligentsia had to make of this ‘insanely atomized individualised world {David Greenblatt}.’

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Yasha Levine was first on my radar, a Russian emigre to America, who recited the snippet-history of the internet, of how most technological inventions originate in the American Military & are sold off into private hands. His theme was how, just as the Soviet eutopia failed, so the internet dream of peaceful & co-operative global harmony has been usurped by oligarchs & weaponized in our times. The internet is a powerful force which shapes society, & just as the American military devised the internet to manage its growing global empire, its pretty much doing the same thing today through its proxy, big business, which is in essence both an aspect & an instrument of the state. Levine explain’d perfectly how we are becoming A-social beings, fed a constant stream of subliminal messages that are non-compatable with a democracy; allowing oursleves to be controlled, our thoughts corrupted by advertisers who study populations & buy our eyeball time in a constant quest to make us consume stuff we don’t really need.

My next talk was based on a book called Others, brought into existence by Charles Fernyhough & containing the writings of a great number of like-minded authors, all opposed to the hate-insipring agenda of the aforementioned media-driven populism. Their remit was to, ‘explore the power of words to help us to see the world as others see it, and to reveal some of the strangeness of our own selves. Through stories, poems, memoirs and essays, we look at otherness in a variety of its forms, from the dividing lines of politics and the anonymising forces of city life, through the disputed identities of disability, gender and neurodiversity, to the catastrophic imbalances of power that stands in the way of social equality.’

Accompanying Fernyhough were Colin Grant, Marina Warner & Will Storr, who gave a session which, although preaching the Otherness of the world, felt more like a chit-chat straight from the Green Room. It didn’t help when Colin Grant began celebrating having his Caribbean accent pomelled out of him by public school & his ‘ascension’ to the Middle-Classes. Of the information acquired from the four-way talk, the most meaningful came from Marina Warner, a veritable Dame of the British Empire, & President of the Royal Society of Literature. She highlighted how refugees have no language in common with their ‘saviours’ – the Nigerians who speak English are a rarity, really – which, she explains, holds back the human spirit’s natural capacity to dismiss all previous misconceptions at point of contact. There are a distinct lack of entry points, she tells us, & suggests song-sharing as a solution, from which should spring a fusion of memories & shared experiences. Instead, the sentiment I gained from this, and my Western-Eastern Divan talk the other day, was that we must finally create the Universal Language to open up the Universal Soul. Once the Fringe is finished, I think I might just get to work on it.

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The third of my trio of talks was David Greenblatt, an incredibly passionate, intelligent & eloquent speaker, if a little over-florid in his prose. His new book is all about how football has taken up, in the last twenty years, a place of global hegemony, becominc a tool of socio-political control in pretty much the same way as the internet. According to Greenblatt, this last bastion of human drama is being used for money, power & influence, with modern football revealing some of the more unappealing attributes of capitalism, such as South America being hollowed out by the richer European leagues. He tells us how oligarchs are now in control of football, just as they run the internet. As I listened intently, I realised how football is simply a mirror to the world we live in today – where austerity measures are forcing councils to sell off grass-root playing fields, while Alexis Sanchez is on half-a-million a week for being a bit of a damp squib at Man United.

Greenblatt’s talk was full of fun facts – 100 million Indonesians watch their rather mediocre national team on TV; European football makes more money than its publishing, it was illegal to play football as a woman in Brazil up to the year 1979, & so on. His endearing message was that we should build a world where the outcomes of life AND football matches should be determined by strength, talent & belief; not money, power & influence.

Damian Beeson Bullen

The Divan Sessions: The West-Eastern Divan

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Wednesday 14th August 2019


2019 sees the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, his last major body of poetry. In 1814 Goethe, arguably Germany’s greatest ever polymath & poet, had found a spiritual twin with the Persian Hafiz, extracts from whose ‘Divan’ are still recited in Iran today. The Thiruvalluvar of the Caspian Sea. On first receiving a complete translation of the those remarkable & poetically pure lyrics of Hafiz – he hadn’t bitten previously on the snippets appearing piecemeal in journals here & there – Goethe declared;

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I was obliged to come to terms with them in a productive manner or I should never have been able to hold my own in the face of such a powerful phenomenon… everything that had been stored away & nurtured in my mind & that bore a similarity either in sense or substance made itds mark, & all the more forcefully, so that I felt an absolute necessity to flee from the real world

Goethe’s complex transliteration of the living spirit of Hafiz manifested itself as one of the first European attempts to connect with the poetry of the Orient, to create a poetic dialogue between East and West. The Bhagadavad Gita was unknown in Europe at this time, for example. In recent years, the crucial publishing house, Gingko, have embarked on quite an an epic project, publishing a new translation into Emnglish by Professor Eric Ormsby, while commissioning a fascinating project called The New Divan.

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The latter text brings together 24 poets from West and East in a dialogue exploring otherness, including Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, Jamie McKendrick, Antonella Anedda, Chloe Aridjis, Sean O’Brien, Narguess Farzad, Jo Shapcott and Gilles Ortlieb. This ambitious anthology brings together new poems by twenty-four leading poets – 12 from the ‘East’ and 12 from the ‘West’ – in a truly international poetic dialogue inspired by the culture of the Other. The poets come from across the East (from Morocco to Turkey, Syria to Afghanistan) and from across the West (from Germany to Mexico, Estonia to Brazil). The new poems respond to the titles of the twelve books of Goethe’s original Divan, including ‘The Poet’, ‘Love’, ‘Ill-humour’, ‘The Cup-Bearer’, ‘The Tyrant’ and ‘Paradise’, and draw on the distinctive poetic forms of the cultures of the poets taking part. Twenty-two English-language poets have created English versions of the poems not originally written in English, either by direct translation or by working with a literal translation.

Since the early twentieth century, Iran witnessesd a bewildering variety of literary borowings from Western traditions. A hundred years later we are come full circle, it seems. The tidal surge sent out by Goethe has returned to its initial impulse. In this bicentennial year I would hear much about the two Divans, spending a delightful hour with Persian academic Narguess Farzad, Scottish poet Robin Robertson and Goethe expert Jan Wagner, chaired by Haus Publishing’s Barbara Schwepcke. Ghazals were read out in German & Persian (simply divine to hear) & the unrhyming Robertson (less divine to hear), while the strenuous efforts behind the creation of the extraordinary project that is the New Divan were fully divulged. The end result left me with two thoughts – the first being that poetry possesses a universal joy, the second that it seems an awful lot of effort to create something like this. Perhaps the powers & attentions of such a Samgam of international poets would be better suited to creating & perfecting the Universal language of humanity instead. Of course, every one of Babel’s tongues will be cherished & possibly curated forever, but projects such as the New Divan are very much like the UN where an excess of time & money are spent upon translations & their translators.

Damian Beeson Bullen

Derek Owusu and Johny Pitts

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Derek Owusu

Edinburgh International Book Festival
10th August 2019


DeRay Mckesson, the celebrated American Black Lives Matter activist, and ‘officially listed’ chair, quoted from authors Derek Owusu and Johny Pitts before handing his role over to British TV and radio presenter Gemma Cairney. She instigated and sustained a palpably uplifting and celebratory current throughout the talk about defeating white supremacy, yet it wasn’t fully clear until the end why this was so important. Introducing herself not by her full name, but with more general joyful declarations of “I love being mixed-race!” and “I love being British!” statements that audience members will receive differently depending on their experience and political outlook. Those of us ‘complexly British’ often need to stamp our identification forcefully before others intrude in the process. We are part of the nation whether other fellow British like it or not, and a display of patriotism represents a complicated defiance in the face of those who might tell us to go ‘home’ in the openly racist atmosphere to which Britain has now returned. The ensuing conversation between two Black British male authors, Derek Owusu and Johny Pitts teased out the complications and commonalities within the multiplicities of Black European lives, to redress the flattening of lives to two-dimensional caricatures by writers with limited understanding and to acknowledge the effects of enduring legacies of colonialism across the continent.

Derek Owusu, contributor and editor of ‘Safe: On Black British men reclaiming space’, is part of the multi-award winning literature podcast Mostly Lit. He has written essays and poetry for a variety of magazines, and aside from Safe, has recently been working on a book of poetry based on London life. While compiling the podcast content, he observed the dearth of Black British male writers. His close friend Yomi Adegoke, one of the authors of seminal Slay in Your Lane, encouraged and assisted Owusu to bring this anthology to fruition. Pitt’s travelogue Afropean: Notes from Black Europe was born out of an interactive website where commentators’ tips on travel as a Black traveller exchanged knowledge of Black communities across the breadth of Europe. However, a range of influences encouraged Pitts to write the book; from a stranger mistaking him for a traveller on a train to Frankfurt, his connection to Black culture through his Brooklyn-born father and his longing to remain part of Europe rather than be marooned on an island where recession and Brexit are driving his white working-class friends to increasingly casual racism. Interesting, that three people of Black heritage in their 30s, no doubt like many others, have been lulled into a sense of Britain being a ‘post-racial’, happily multicultural society and shocked at the epidemic of virulent racism.
So maybe it was just as well that Cairney insisted on encouraging all of us to focus on the joyous benefits of reading literature by Black British men, to no doubt steer us away from the unspoken shadows of moral duty, aid and charity that hover around efforts towards that much abused and almost meaningless term, diversity. Yet, these are the short cut buzzwords that serve their use at times, and she threw out the challenge to the audience to think of ways to diversify the UK’s reading audience. Caribbean and African families have a strong tradition of encouraging literacy and generally insist on effort and discipline from their children. However, although research shows Black children are the most prepared for school at 5, British schools particularly fail Black boys in a number of ways. Often an early interest in reading begins to wane in a British environment, partly due to the low expectations teachers have of Black boys, but also due to the lack of culturally relevant reading material. Owusu explained that the Black boys he works with will eagerly read self-help books about motivational mindsets and wealth creation that they consider to be useful to their lives, but, as Pitts pointed out, these books come with their own pitfalls of striving for individual success over that of the community and ignoring the realities of structural discrimination.

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Johny Pitts

It took a while to portray a sense of what the books themselves were about, and the conversation took a snaking route to their contents. The puritanical, serious side of me was beginning to feel irritated with what I perceived as a focus on trivialities. “Disco is my religion”, stated the chair. And then I remembered. And listened. Balance is important. Hope is important. Pleasure is important. Maintaining refuges of joy have always been vital to Black people’s survival. Music and dance have always been important, not only as a release, or to the strengthening of community bonds, but also as a link to collective African systems of spirituality that have always been rooted in transcendent rituals of music and dance. As Owusu pointed out, the discrimination at white owned clubs and the criminalisation of Black ones, creeping gentrification and the gobbling up of public space all combine to increase the urgency of creating new ‘safe’ spaces within which to exist. Conversation turned to accessing the publishing industry with its notorious gatekeepers, praising musician Stormzy’s decision to accept unsolicited submissions for his imprint #Merky Books in order to remove the significant barrier of finding an agent. There are serious issues with pigeonholing in the marketing of books by BAME authors which prevents a wider audience from seeing certain stories as ‘universal stories’. Pitts reminded us that keyholes to literature are often in the everyday, as he recalled how the lyrics of Blackstar’s song Thieves in the Night lead him to the work of Toni Morrison.

Owusu has gathered a range of talented writers for his anthology, including the well-known Courttia Newland and Musa Okwonga. Safe will take you on a journey of themes and locations around the U.K., as Owusu was keen to avoid being London-centric. Afropean lends an ear to Black communities right across Europe, as his book blurb states, ‘through council estates, political spaces, train stations, tour groups and underground arts scenes’. I loved the insistence by Pitts that to progress, the overworn individualism of ‘doing you’ or ‘doing me’ needs to reconfigured as ‘doing us’. Owusu and Cairney also paid testament to the boost that comes from generous, inclusive creative networks, similar to those in the Harlem Renaissance. Black authors can utilise friendly criticism from others who share similar cultural references and outlooks. The talk ended unconventionally, which took a few people unawares. Instead of time for the usual Q and A, both authors had a chance to read from their books. Derek chose his own touching tale of moving at a tender age between his foster and biological families, where even his toys berated his stern mother. Johny’s excerpt gave us a glimpse of Jimmy, a Black American man searching for an elusive dream of freedom on a walking tour in Paris. We laughed as Johny recounted Jimmy’s whispered recollections, well out of earshot of his wife, about his life-changing romance with ‘Bey’ey’ as a teenager stationed in Scotland. In his recollection, after a night of passion that followed drinks in the pub, he walks down the stairs of Betty’s family home near Holy Loch. Ready to face an angry white family and ‘to run and get my ass out of there’, he was shocked at being greeted with warm smiles and an invitation to join in the family breakfast. Gemma Cairney is right. Let us embrace one other and feel the joy in togetherness.

Lisa Williams