Saturday, 27 August 2005

Willy Wonka

Am I the only one who prefers Gene Wilder's Willy to Johnny Depp's?

Tim Burton's version is, in many ways, superior: the songs, the mise-en-scene, the special effects, perhaps even the colour. But Wilder had an uncany, unexplained aura (call it mystery) mixed with a melancholy, that was more Sickert than sick.

Depp, with his (dental) family drama is more mental than anything, weird when he should be wonderful, and poutingly adolescent when he should have been magical - next they'll be recasting Depp as Humbert Humbert, and making him the young one.

Willy Wonka doesn't need a Freudian backstory. He transgresses and transcends the Oedipal struggle.

Wilder made me shiver and was unfogettable. Depp's too lightweight here, all tics and homages to Jackson and Rogers. His greatest performance remains Ed Wood. Now that's weirdness well done.

The Oxfam Poetry Reading Series continues

The Oxfam Poetry Reading Series continues with its Autumn season, after a very successful Summer Festival.

Both upcoming events feature some of the best, most popular, and compelling poets now writing in the English language, globally, from Australia, America, Canada, Ireland, the UK, and South Africa.

Due to the extraordinary demand likely for these events, please do contact us if you are interested in reserving a ticket.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005
7-9 pm, Oxfam Books & Music Shop
91 Marylebone High Street, London W1

Four Poets for Oxfam:

Les Murray, Lachlan Mackinnon
Isobel Dixon
and Todd Swift


End of Year Finale
Thursday, November 29, 2005
7-10 pm, Oxfam Books & Music Shop
91 Marylebone High Street, London W1

Six Poets for Oxfam:

Lavinia Greenlaw, Sophie Hannah, Sinead Morrissey
Charles Bennett, Leah Fritz
and Briar Wood


Admission free - suggested £8 donation - all proceeds to Oxfam.

To reserve a ticket (for a place, not necessarily a seat) call 020 7487 3570
or email

Friday, 26 August 2005

Fa yeung nin wa

I consider Fa yeung nin wa (In The Mood for Love) directed by Wong Kar-wai the supreme work of art of the last decade of the 20th century (culminating in 2000), for its sublime and supreme mix of fin-de-siecle tropes, images and style, taken from both Western and Eastern cinema, literature and art.

I think it is the finest High Erotic Drama in 20th century film, after Vertigo, which is the second best film ever created, for the intense, beautiful and multiple elements surrounding love-death themes from Wagner, Freud and Chandler, which it unleashes.

2046 would be in any list of created works that might vie against Bob Dylan's album (see previous post), but ultimately is slightly weaker than its prequel, though perhaps more fascinating, even visually intricate. However, Fa yeung nin wa seems to me to have generated its own textures - moods, flavours - so as to almost invite radical comparison with so-called reality: it is, arguably, the embodiment of desire.

Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Playtime for Tati

I have recently seen what now must rank as one of my ten favorite films: Playtime by Jacques Tati. Following on the heels of Peeping Tom, it has been quite a cinematic week.

Playtime has it all for me (all except dialogue and plot) - ultra-modern retro design, Pan Am-style costumes, a superb soundscape, and a filmic exuberance second only to Welles. This makes Far From Heaven seem bland and colourless.

Tati's satiric, futuristic, balletic work is a delight, and I urge you to try and see it as soon as you can, if only for the wonderful set-piece routines involving glass doors that don't exist (and those that do) - and images of Jetsons-like couples in their fully-exposed living rooms.

The end of the film - so sad-sweet it aches - suddenly turns on an observation so simple only Tati could find the rhythm that shows the quotidien to be also the rare - all life is a carnivalesque cycle of loss and being found - rich in isolation and verve. To despair is to ignore what is on the other side of the (perhaps) non-present door...

Monday, 22 August 2005

Postcard from Creeley

Announcing: a pooka press postcard printed at High Ground Press, August 2005 Robert Creeley 1926-2005. See image to the left. Cost $12.00. Cheque or Money Order made payable to Nancy McLean c/o

pooka press
P.O. Box 2648
Vancouver Main Station
349 West Georgia Street
Vancouver, B.C. V6B 3W8


(pooka is publishing poems of mine shortly, too).

Sunday, 21 August 2005

Take A Stand

Volume 6 (2) 2005 is now out. A recent issue is pictured here.

This new issue of Stand - one of the UK's most respected and long-running little magazines - features work by Peter Redgrove, Penelope Shuttle, Michael Heller, Alison Trower, and your faithful correspondent, TS.

At only £6.50, and with its trademark wider than it is tall design, well worth the wait (this one's taken longer to appear than the next ice age).

Friday, 19 August 2005

Weather Permitted

Last night's Oxfam reading in London was a success and an endurance test - a sort of Iron Man for poets. It was un unexpectedly hot and humind evening, and, without air-conditioning, and with a capacity crowd of 115 in attendance (as well as volunteers and poets) it became a sauna, as they say.

Nonetheless, eight of the best poets now out there read for over two hours, we had a long wine-soaked interval which extended half the block down the high street - and raised about a thousand pounds for the current African crisis appeal. It was memorable, and somewhat intense - and each poet read poems with a heat-related theme.

Thursday, 18 August 2005

Oxfam 8 Poets Tonight

Oxfam Summer Poetry Festival 2005
Gala Reading, Thursday, August 18, 7-10 pm
OXFAM 8 POETS, featuring:
Paul Farley
Leontia Flynn
Nick Laird
Sally Read
John Stammers
John Stiles
George Szirtes
Tamar Yoseloff

(hosted by Todd Swift)

Oxfam Books & Music
91 Marylebone High StreetLondon,
W1, near Baker Street

Admission free - £8 recommended doantion - all proceeds to Oxfam
Biographical notes for the poets below.
Nick Laird
Nick Laird was born in County Tyrone in 1975. He attended Cambridge University, before working as a litigator for several years in London and Warsaw. In 2004 he was awarded an Eric Gregory award, and in 2005 he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Irish Chair of Poetry Prize. His collection To A Fault appeared from Faber in January (and has been nominated for a Forward prize). His novel, Utterly Monkey, appeared from Fourth Estate in May.

John Stammers
John Stammers is a Londoner, born in Islington, where he still lives. He graduated in Philosophy from Kings’ College London and is an Associate of King’s College. His first collection Panoramic Lounge-bar (Picador 2001) won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award and his recent full collection Stolen Love Behaviour (Picador 2005) is Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 2005 and has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward. He has a pamphlet called Buffalo Bills from (Donut Press

Sally Read
Sally Read has had many jobs, including teaching and psychiatric nursing, and has lived in the US, Italy, and all over the UK. She won an Eric Gregory award in 2001 and her first collection, The Point of Splitting was published by Bloodaxe this year. Some of the poems in the collection are being translated into Italian for inclusion in an anthology out with the Italian publisher Medusa next year. She is currently writing her first novel.

George Szirtes
Born in Budapest in 1948, poet and artist George Szirtes came to England as a refugee, following the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. His family settled in London and he trained as a painter in Leeds and London. His return visits to Hungary from 1984 onwards have resulted in a stream of translations into English. George Szirtes became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 and has since won many awards for his work. He lives in Norfolk where he teaches Creative Writing at the Norwich School of Art and Design and the University of East Anglia. Much of his poetry has been collected in The Budapest File (Bloodaxe 2000) and An English Apocalypse (Bloodaxe 2001). His latest poetry collection, Reel - from Bloodaxe - was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and was awarded the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.

Tamar Yoseloff
Tamar Yoseloff was born in the US in 1965. Her first collection, Sweetheart, was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the winner of the Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection. Her second collection, Barnard's Star, was published by Enitharmon in November 2004. She is currently the Programme Co-ordinator and a tutor for The Poetry School in London and also teaches creative writing at Birkbeck. She has recently been appointed Writer in Residence at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as part of their Year in Literature Festival.

John Stiles
John Stiles was born in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada, and currently lives in London. As poet, novelist, and filmmaker, John has toured Europe and Canada with a hard rock band, worked as a door-to-door salesman, school teacher, and B-movie camera operator. John’s poetry, Scouts are Cancelled (Insomniac Press), novel, The Insolent Boy (Insomniac Press) and film have received accolades in Publishers Weekly, Chart Magazine and The Globe and Mail. He recently featured as one of the new Canadian Poets in New American Writing. He currently works for a church charity in Waterloo, photocopying cheques.

Leontia Flynn
Leontia Flynn was born in Belfast in 1974. She was awarded an Eric Gregory Award in 2001, and has recently completed a PhD at Queen's College, Belfast on Medbh McGuckian. These Days is her first poetry collection, and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She was selected for The Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation group.

Paul Farley
Paul Farley was born in Liverpool, England in 1965 and studied at the Chelsea School of Art. He won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1996 and his first collection of poetry, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award and won a Somerset Maugham Award. He was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 1999. He received an Arts Council Writers' Award in 2000 for his new collection of poems, The Ice Age (2002), which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and won the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003. Paul Farley was writer in residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, from 2000-2002, and currently lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. In 2004, he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society's 'Next Generation' poets. Paul Farley helped judge the 2004 T.S Eliot Prize for Poetry, which was won by George Szirtes.

Peeping Tom/ Michael Powell

The opening shot of Michael Powell's infamous film Peeping Tom is the unfortunate scopophiliac eye of Mark Lewis - pictured to the left, as used for the cover of a paperback introduction to hypnosis. Mark's pitiful director's chair, with his name, a boyish toy, is one of cinema's unforgettable props.

This is the year of Powell - the genius behind great but little-seen films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Britain's Citizen Kane) and Black Narcissus - since it is his centenary. Amazingly, after the shock that greeted Peeping Tom (released the same year as Psycho) the director was never allowed to direct a film again, even though he was still only in his 40s, and would live several more decades. Powell was rediscovered and championed by Martin Scorsese, and Scorsese's longtime editor married Powell eventually, so almost a happy ending.

I saw the film (as peeping Todd) for the first time the other night - which is somewhat embarrassing, since I have lectured on voyeurism and cinema in the past, and this is the key film text of that subject (in fairness to myself, I have read a great deal about the film). In fact, I suspect, having been exposed to so much theory about the film, one of the most notorious and even loathed (as well as adored) in the British canon, I was afraid to see it - lest it disappoint.

My first reaction was that the film's frank use (discussion is not quite the right word) of themes such as visual desire, pornography, childhood abuse, and psychosexuality was more disturbing and intelligent (even) than Psycho, though Anthony Perkins is a better actor than Carl Boehme, the Tom of the title. Powell was a visual master, and his use of mis-en-scene impressive. The script is also playful and knowing, with its constant use of visual words - when asked if he is a reporter, Mark states he is with The Observer, for example.

The early scene, in a technicolour twilit East-end street where the killer seeks to film and kill a sex worker is so beautifully shot it is exponentially more upsetting (and potent) than the equivalent moments in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock chose a more austere visual palette for his film). The use of the footage of Mark as a little boy, being exposed to lizards by his research-scientist father, are bizarre and perhaps the most taboo element of the film, though the climactic scene where we are exposed to the killer's morbid use of reflection as a terror-device is so "twisted" and clearly the result of (transparent) trauma it induces both profound disgust and pity (as such crimes in actuality no doubt would). One point of comparison between PT and P is that both use the home as looming, central location for the site of crime (that is the locus of the primal, family drama remains into adulthood as the epicenter of distress) - in Mark's case, he still lives in the house his father used as a laboratory, and is now a landlord who rents out the rooms below to tenants who think of him as just another one of them.

This generates the classic uncanny (unhomed) state - where, as Freud says, one sometimes feels least at home at home. For Norman, the murders radiate from his home, namely, the motel's key room, where the keyhole allows him visual intercourse with his intended love objects/victims. Mark is more free-floating - that is, mobile: he takes pictures - and lives - by literally taking his hand-held camera (if only someone had held his hand when he was a child!) out into the world, as a comfort object (it stands in for his father, whose fetish-gift it was). Once again, while for Norman the mother is the big issue, for Mark (with his Viennese and unexplained accent) his father is the source of anguish.

If the movie has not aged as well as Psycho - and it hasn't - chalk it up to the acting, which is more 50s than 60s (the film was on the cusp of these very different decades) - and the fact that, while the world of American Gothic motel-land has become iconic, Powell's terrain of grubby conershops masking elaborate porn-studio locations featuring women dressed as Parisian tarts (Folies Legeres), complete with berets seems more from the hyper-surreal set of Moulin Rouge. Or perhaps that is the point: we are, after all, seeing the film through the killer's phantasmagoric eyes.


My latest collection (2004), Rue du Regard, in fact partially explores themes that arise from the intersection of film and desire (in a Paris-London context) and reads like a sort of homage to Peeping Tom (so perhaps only imagining the film was best for my creation of the poems). I include one from this book below.

Total Film

Excitement and Entertainment
Are nearly the same word, I suggest.
Point the Swiss Binoculars.
Let God's eye do the rest.
It's not my fault if Miss X

Takes off her clothes so I can see:
What's it to her? Total Film to me.
While there's a light to cast a shadow,
Who needs the glossy page?
Every window is a stage.

I've come close to parlours where
Dress is in a state of disrepair. I know
To watch is not to do, that's sad.
Hamlet spied on his mother, another,
And it was doing that was the bother.

I blame this talent for observation
On my father. But it may extend
Back to the origins of animals and men;
In caves when it was hard to make
Things out. On dry plains where the prey

Looked small and far away, but came
Closer as you squinted, shaded by hand.
What you get is what you see, running
In the opposite direction, overland. It's
Retinal, no skin, the stock-in-trade regret.

poem by Todd Swift

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Been Reading: Love, Amy

I enjoy a cup of tea and a book in the afternoon, and today found a new book that went perfectly with my English Breakfast Tea (just published this August 2005) edited by Willard Spiegelman: Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt.

I mentioned Amy Clampitt in a post just the other day, since she came up in conversation with Sally Read, the English poet, who also intends to read this book.

I am very fond of Clampitt's poetry, in the same way that I delight in the work of Hopkins, Stevens and (some of) Ormsby - for the music, and the manifold textures, sensuous details, the observation wrapped around fine eloquence and elegance - refinement on fire made of vermilion you might opine. She loved words well-placed, and meaning well. You might observe - incorrectly - that there is something askew about having mention of Amy Clampitt (her name the best poem of all!) so close to a post on Todd Colby, who is so contemporary and punk-oriented - as many will make the diction-character error (that there is an essential low and high equivalence between a person's artistic tastes and style and their personal code of conduct).

But, Amy Clampitt, who was the most "British" of American poets (she loved George Eliot and Keats) also was a Quaker, an antiwar peace activist (something which I share with her), and, at the end of her life, according to Spiegelman, "excited by poetry slams". That a poet published by Faber & Faber could frequent such coffeehouse events with enthusiasm and without snobbery - in short, would have enjoyed, in her eclectic fashion, Todd Colby's aesthetic as well as her own - is refreshing, even as it is alien to the mainly conformist mindset of those in Britain, who, even as they name drop Berryman or Lowell, would run a mile to avoid a line of verse that did not scan, or that hinted at emotion, or anything as vulgar as the grand, unironic, Whitmanian statement. Clampitt, that most British of poets, turns out also, in her letters, to be most American (she was a fan of Dickinson and Whitman, too). In short, she is heroic.

The Letters are very moving - though the collection is slim.

I have only dipped in, but it's a fascinating selection. Clampitt, of course, became famous very late in life (in her 60s) - she started writing poetry in her 50s - so she is very much an icon of never-give-up-ness, which poets need to have, to remain sane in what is a very indifferent and topsy-turvy publishing climate (one where talent takes a backseat to prize winnings, as if poetry was a greased pig at a country fair) with all the hokum that implies. She turned down the editor's role for Best American Poetry in the mid-80s, which is also impressive - so much poetry now depends on a poet's career moves, or so it seems to them - so many a younger poet must be stunned to read the letter in which she politely but firmly refuses to weed through and find her favourites. I think it is a shame she hadn't the confidence to do this, since her selections would have been as justified as anyone else's and likely more interesting.

I wrote a poem on a train this spring, returning from Bristol where I'd been giving a poetry workshop, and it was after reading The Kingfisher, one of the great debuts in poetry history. I was trying to fit her and Stevens together. The poem first appeared on the Cordite website (see link) but I am also going to append it here below.

The Lighthouse Keeper

It might be wiser to weather in a lighthouse
Than risk the vertical incisions of the storm
That seems to have rescued the torn sea from itself
Only to let it return, this time as tragedy, as full rain.
No longer as young as when, morning, the sky, like pearl,
Was forming an idea, both pale and rare, you shelve
The green Clampitt and admit night's other influence
Now as the vicious parakeet of light screeches again.
It is a wise reader that stays in for the Horn's winter,
Knowing no matter how literal the mad trades - hurling -
Desire to become, wildness winters in this tall home,
A tower whose saving grace revolves above its calm.
The custom is to lay provisions, storing for the squall;
To reflect on through the many fog-throttled panes, water.

poem by Todd Swift

The Point of Splitting

"Sally Read’s first collection is a marvellous book, bringing together poignant and lyrical meditations on love, mortality, art, healing and the Italian landscape in poems of fine judgement and a true poet’s skill. The Point of Splitting marks the debut of an accomplished writer, not only one to watch, but one to read now, for her wit, craft, and clear vision" – John Burnside

I had drinks with Sally Read yesterday in London - some fine white wine from New Zealand. It was a treat. She's reading as part of the major Oxfam fundraiser this Thursday in London.

Ms. Read is, to my mind, one of the most brave and clever of the poets born in the UK in the last thirty or so years - her work straddles traditions without fear and with style. Basically, we discussed poetry, and our unabashed embrace of it, whether (North) American or British (and beyond).

She and I both share a great respect for the American poet, Baron Wormser (as well as a passion for Amy Clampitt). I mean to write a review someday (but how the days fly) of her debut from Bloodaxe, The Point of Splitting (see John Burnside's quote above); suffice it to say, you won't find a much more daring, well-made, satisfying or probing series of poems on the body, desire, sex, and death (and yes other things) written by an English woman (or man) this year.

Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Been Reading: The State of the Prisons

Sinead Morrissey was born in Portadown in 1972 and read English and German at Trinity College, Dublin, from which she took her PhD in 2003. In 1990 she received the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry and in 1996 she won an Eric Gregory Award for the manuscript of her first book, There was Fire in Vancouver (Carcanet, 1996). Her second book, Between Here and There (2002) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Award. She lived and worked in Japan and New Zealand and now lives in Northern Ireland, where she has been writer-in-residence at Queen's University, Belfast. Her most recent collection, The State of the Prisons, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.


From time to time, I'll be leaving notes, comments, and very brief reviews here, regarding collections of poetry I am currently reading - very unofficial and not at all meant to summarize or in fact review at all. The first in this occasional series is The State of the Prisons, by Sinead Morrissey (see above).

I haven't finished the collection - I love to dip and swoon in and out of a poetry book like a ladle into water - but have enjoyed several of the shorter poems, especially. I recognize the poem "In Praise of Salt" from the anthology I edited for Salt (100 Poets Against The War) of course (and wonder where the acknowledgement for that is, but never mind) - but to my mind the three finest poems in the book (so far, for me) are:



Morrissey has a very good way with incorporating the body (or bodies) in to history, and vice versa. She's somewhat famous for her historical, sensuous eye, in fact - she makes inventories you can live with, surveys that vivify old ground. In "Migraine" the Russian hostage stand-off in the theatre we all remember, which ended so badly, begins, for one hostage, with a migraine - their own body taking control of them, doing damage - so you get a Russian doll of pain.

"Genetics" covers what might be already a trope stretched too thin - how many DNA poems can any one actually need? - but has the exceptional last line: "We know our parents make us by our hands" which has something of the lasting quality we expect in the very best poetry written in the Hardy-Larkin line.

"Zero" seems to me to be even better than these seriously good poems, though - a poem that, as far as mainstream Irish and British writing goes, seems destined to be representative of the dates 2000-2010. That it is, it's a poem of the decade. Why?

Well, the conceit is delightful and compact - Alexander is bringing "zero" to the Greeks - and the poem works this out - "this number / no-number would eat the world" - in ways both colourful and intelligent - it's wit on the move. It is also a relief to see someone Irish redeem Alexander after the woeful Colin Farrell murdered the man with his bleached portrait in the eponymous Stone film of late (I loved JFK).

I have just spotted another poem in the book I want to read; "Gobi from the Air".

But, I can be lazy traveller in reading - stopping and starting as I please - so I'll save it for another day. Morrissey's collection is worth the effort required to cross the sands, and is certainly a contender for this year's incoming T.S. Eliot Awards to be held in London.

Friday, 12 August 2005

Budavox Is Gone

One of the signs of the end of the world is... the end of the old world signs. As you may know, I lived in Budapest for something like four years, and in that time, came to fall in love with the BUDAVOX sign (pictured above) which was on a building near the infamous Astoria hotel (where the Nazi HQ was during the occupation) where the British Council held many of their poetry events: so, Ken Smith, Douglas Dunn, Matthew Sweeney and others read there.

The BUDAVOX sign came to represent, for me, the fading glamour of the period in Hungary between the 20s and 50s, when socialism and modern technology intersected in wonderful design achievements in architecture, many of which were in the process of being torn down in the late 90s, as capitalism rushed in. There were many beautiful signs with superb retro lettering, but none as big as BUDAVOX.

I had written the dubbing band for a documentary about Hungary's "Golden Team" - their legendary footballers, and had first glimpsed the giant sign for BUDAVOX in the background of a cheering crowd scene - all the men with their fedoras, their heads turned upwards to the tannoys broadcasting news of the fateful match. The BUDAVOX building was home of the BUDAVOX company, which was responsible for telecommunications technology. They'd pioneered a service where the phone would ring and when you answered, someone would read you the evening news.

When my first collection of poems was published, in 1999, I called it Budavox, to celebrate that sign, my interest in telecommunications (as a Canadian abroad this was doubly to be expected), and my general love of Budapest and Hungarian culture.

I was sad to receive an email today from a lawyer in Budapest, who informs me the sign is no more.

He writes: "Sadly the neon sign BUDAVOX has been replaced by the name of a new theatre. The huge former press house that stands beside the Corvin (in front of your former window) is being scrapped at the moment and shall be replaced by a new designed building hosting a hotel and shops. The so called Bazard (the small ugly shops on Karoly korut - Merlin theatre was behind) is also being scrapped."

I am sorry no one felt this sign deserved preserving. It was part of a great moment in national history - the Golden Team moment - and more importantly is an iconic image of the cool, retro Budapest of yesteryear. I shall miss BUDAVOX greatly.

Thursday, 11 August 2005

Poem by Patrick Chapman

Patrick Chapman is a very intriguing writer, indeed. I've known him for a few years, since we met in Paris, after he'd contributed work for the 100 Poets Against The War anthologies. I'd read his early poetry in the collection The New Pornography, and enjoyed his dark sensibility, which seemed, in its style and themes, so refreshingly un-Irish.

Chapman is one of Ireland's most versatile younger writers, equally interested in creating award-winning science fiction, short films, and widely-published poetry.

He has a fine, cinematic eye for the disturbing image, and his work often concerns itself with territory that might be loosely described as Cronenbergian (with a side-trip down Lynch Boulevard). He's been doing some good readings lately, and has a new book forthcoming from Salmon. It'll be his best, I believe. He's only in his mid-30s and just hitting his stride now. The link to his blog is where you'd expect to find it. Unlike in Chapman's work, where you must expect the unexpected.


I’ve taken all the vodka and the wheat beers are all gone.
The pills are working, tiny fogs.

I guess I will be leaving here, this curious fall night.
Got anything to say before I go?

You could have left a thread for neutered Theseus to follow but
That night you were both Ariadne and the Minotaur.

poem by Patrick Chapman

Wednesday, 10 August 2005

In Praise of Vladek Sheybal

Vladek Sheybal is one of the greatest screen villains from that golden age of 60s and 70s thrillers set in Europe during a grey morning frost, or evening of cobble stone streets and Citroens. I think here of The Odessa File and most famously The Day of the Jackal. I don't know why films of this era make me feel so curiously happy (I tingle like when I smell snow) - perhaps it is a simple childhood reflex, as I was born in '66.

More to the point, Sheybal was Kronsteen in From Russia With Love - and a truly sociopathic heroin-dealer/clock fetishist/ chain-killer in Puppet On A Chain (1970).

Puppet On A Chain - which is on DVD - is one of the grittiest and most entertaining of those 70s films with the porn-style soundtrack - and seems dubbed by actors with slightly Dutch accents. It is very entertaining, if you, like me, are a fan of all things retro. It has the flavour of an Avengers episode, but is more dark and violent than the Bonds that had preceded (and influenced) it.

The scene where the female protagonist is strung up like the title says is truly chilling, and Sheybal's drug-jaded explanation of why he has killed the women in the film is one of the most disturbing psycho-scenes in cinema from the period (and worthy of Polanski, also from Poland and with a similarly fraught childhood). The motorboat chase sequence through the canals of Amsterdam is superb, and unjustly forgotten.

Sheybal - dressed in a white suit and flamboyant hat - engages in a truly uncanny cat-and-mouse game involving a shotgun at the end - a haunting sequence within a sequence that is so still after the water and the racing motors. You can see how the directors of the recent homages to this era, The Bourne films with Matt Damon, have learned from this sort of imagery - how the films have to catch that early-morning European frost in the air, and the neo-modern chrome of the airports, and the whine of French police sirens: it is a recipe for a mood like no other if done properly.

I am not sure why the Alistair MacLean thrillers have not been properly assembled and sold to us as a collector's set (Fear Is The Key, and Bear Island, along with the Anthony Hopkins actioner - also a 70s classic - When Eight Bells Toll - would all be great items to rediscover for an age that enjoys schlock and camp).

Why is Sheybal so little praised now?

Sunday, 7 August 2005

Robin Cook and the Tragic Departure

Robin Cook has died tragically, at the age of 59, while hill-walking with his wife in Scotland - apparently of a heart-attack.

I learned of Mr. Cook's death yesterday while in a hackney cab in London. The driver, who had just heard the awful news on the radio, turned to me and said: "he was the best of the lot".

The best of the lot. A tribute indeed. Throughout London yesterday and today, I have seen and heard the little, everyday average decent people of Britain murmuring their shock, and sadness, at the loss of the one decent man associated with Labour.

Robin Cook was a hero of mine, for his principled resignation on the eve of the illegal British war against the people of Iraq, in 2003. In some ways, he inspired my actions as part of the poets against the war movement. He was a catalyst for putting ethical considerations back at the heart of government and foreign policy, and he lost his job for it. But he was the hero of many. His death - at a time when he was widely expected to return to a top position when Brown replaces Blair - is a treble loss: for his family, his party, and the world. He departed parliament with the eloquent dignity of a great man, an historic figure; he departs the world, sadly, with far less grace, but no less drama. He leaves us with a memory of the best in each of us - a Socratic figure, a candidate for one of the great people of the age.

May there may be others like him in our future.

Saturday, 6 August 2005

60 Years Ago Today

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb by Allied forces on Hiroshima, at the end of WWII.

I was in Hiroshima three weeks ago, and went to see the Peace Park and the dome, pictured above. I was not prepared for the banality of time: Hiroshima has flourished, trees, people and buildings (life) have returned, and the city, in summer, is lush, hot, and beautiful. The hypocentre of the bomb-blast - targeting the T-shaped bridge - was a smallish island set in the middle of a river, at the heart of the city, and on the island, 50,000 people lived.

They died within seconds. As readers will know, many more died within minutes, hours, and more terribly, days.

The tens of thousands of fatal and violently disfiguring injuries, from heat, blast-force, fire, radiation, and flying glass and steel, should remind those in London and New York of their tragedies - and compel people of good will everywhere to oppose the development of weapons of mass destruction.

I have a few very brief statements I wish to make:

1. The use of the atomic bomb on a civilian target on August 6, 1945, without warning, was a wicked act and a war crime. I am ashamed to read of the Tokyo trials, where Japanese class-A war criminals were hung, while the men who conceived and carried out the attack on Hiroshima thrived, often celebrated.

2. No historical argument, or geo-political strategy can substitute its claims for an ethical imperative that should be at the heart of all human agency: it is always wrong to kill thousands of innocent civilians in a cruel, painful and indiscriminate manner. Once we dicker with the word always in the phrase above, we enter the world of real politique that leads to ash-heap-graves where 50,000 people can crouch in one wheelbarrow.

3. The ongoing development of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategic thinking by Western governments is a crime against humanity.

4. The manufacture, sale, and distribution of arms supported by governments such as the UK, France, Canada, America, etc., is an evil which perpetuates immense suffering and much conflict in the world; the fact that the market can be imperviously-driven by the profits that arms sales unquestionably make only hints at the immense flaw at the core of the Western world in our time.

In honour of the many victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we must work to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Or lose our own humanity.

Friday, 5 August 2005

Russian Submariners

The Russian Kursk submarine (pictured to the left) met its tragic fate roughly five years ago - the anniversary will be next week. Tragically, another Russian submersible is today - in waters of a depth of 190 meters - facing a similarly trying rescue operation; the world can only hope for the best for them at this time.

Five years ago, I was very much exercised by the intersection between poetry and the immediacy of world events as conveyed by the news (and was living in Budapest).

At that time, I wrote a poem with disturbing echoes of today, not least the death of German tourists (then in an Air France crash, this time in Russian bus accidents).

You'll find the poem "Hull Losses" below; originally published in 2002 in my second collection, Cafe Alibi. The technical-actuarial term hull losses refers to plane crashes, but also the hulls of submarines; and by extension, I was thinking of Larkin, who lived in Hull, near a bleak seascape, and faced many different losses in his work.

As such, the poem is, I believe, the only one in English to concern itself with: a) aviation and submersible disasters; b) Internet pornography; c) Philip Larkin; d) murder; e) the intersection of these themes in terms of scopophilia and fragility of structures (including poems).

Hull Losses

First, the Concorde's tire burst, then
the Kursk went down in the Barents Sea,
all hands knocking out Morse
with spoons on bent hulls, the high-tech

surroundings inexplicably silent.
Rescue pods fail. Scan-addicts,
meanwhile, search for HQ babes,
dragging up thumbs from blue depths.

Cold Russian submariners morose
on an Arctic floor; exploded German
tourists in the burst supersonic;
a child penetrated, later dumped in a bag;

the convict injected; the neurological patient
whose eyelid, alone, is what still moves
(fluttering like the flap of a cut thumb).
Each a real presence: but not for all time.

What is our true quality, sly impermanence?
The flaw in us may be like a single hair
scanned in by accident - a stray line
fracturing the collector's perfect jpeg.

poem by Todd Swift

Wednesday, 3 August 2005

50 Years Waiting For Godot

Fifty years ago today, August 3, in London, Waiting For Godot had its English-language premiere, directed by Peter Hall. It is as we all now know, one of the great post-war plays, and the sequence of events triggered by the August 3 production (at first being harshly reviewed then lionized) led to the less-than-well-known Beckett becoming the Irish Kafka of the 20th century - the bleak-yet-witty writer most likely to be associated in chrome-gleaming suburban Cold War households with a sort of Existenz-darkened Zeitgeist. He also won the Nobel Prize.

Today, the works seems more permanently a part of the canon than ever - and it is somehow astounding to realize it is only 50 years since Godot entered the public imagination. In a world where new episodes of Dr. Who are described as "edgy, dark" etc., the vision of this masterwork remains brilliantly opaque and ascetically lavish. I retain an unfair suspicion, however, that some writers ascend to the dizzy heights partially on the basis of what could be called The Gaunt Factor.

Beckett - long before the sort of pr photography that made Joy Division, Depeche Mode and U2 seem intensely profound and doomed in long-gentleman shadows - was blessed with iconic photographic images of himself equal to his stature - somehow, images were found to portray his language. No English writer, other than Auden, has ever used his own wrinkled visage to such effect. If we love Dostoevsky, it is despite his unpalatable portraits - if we love Beckett, it is at least partially because of his face.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...