Friday, October 05, 2018

John Clare, Poets and the Booby Hatch

Went last night with a group of poets, a playwright and some interested onlookers to a public reading of John Clare's poetry in the dim light of the Guildhall Courtyard in Northampton. We stood or sat around the Clare statue there, the group about ten strong, and most read poems either by Clare, or work in the spirit of the so-called Peasant Poet; someone who's appearing in a play about Clare at the Abington Park Museum on Sunday recited part of that. You could tell he was accustomed to the stage: his voice projected powerfully over the noise of the traffic and the group on the steps at the other end of the courtyard loudly chattering.

I mention no names because the only person I knew there was Jimtom Keith Thomas James, Northampton's best living poet (myself not included). Jimtom, in kilt and red Cymru jacket, shuffled next to Clare's statue to read, demonstrating rightful kinship maybe, then picked a poem at random and read it beautifully. I declined when the organiser looked at me. I stopped reading in public a long time ago, and it's bad for my epilepsy if I read in poor light.

The discussion at the beginning of the reading gave a rather sentimentalised view of Clare and his mental health problems, I thought. He had seven children to support, according to the source I consulted, with little money to support them. He drank too, and seems to have had a complex relationship with the peasant life he is supposed to be the lyrical embodiment of. While stating that 'with the old dish served to my forefathers, I am content', he also dismissed his neighbours as 'insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.' That's a baseless snobbery I have been guilty of more than once in my life. Another poet with no money and no recognition (at least he'd had it once) living among the commoners.

As for Clare's illness, he was probably a little bit 'mad', as even polite people said in those days, from the very beginning. All creativity comes from a dysfunctional relationship with what is presumed to be reality. Artists in all mediums sit, think, imagine, dream, play, re-invent, while life is going on around them; they absorb the world around them through different processors. There is always a part of them not in the physical space most people occupy. Or I imagine they occupy it; I wouldn't know, being a lifelong fantasiser and not remotely connected to that mysterious multitude considered 'normal'. But what happens when dreams and fancies collide with the brute realities of the world?

Then you have confusion.

Then you have anger. Or the suffocation of anger in depression.

Then you have breakdown.

Then you have imagining you're Lord Byron and ending up in the crazy house. 

This may not be the textbook definition of the stages of mental illness, but it's been my experience more than once.


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

To The Bookcave!

I was walking down Market Street in Kettering with Michelle this morning, remembering my friend Salvatore who worked in a long-gone clothes shop there in the early 80s, when I noticed a bookshop I'd never seen before. 'Bookshop!' I said to Michelle. I'd thought there were none this side of Leicester, Waterstone's branches excluded.

Bookcave Limited is situated inside a shopping district called the Yards, which looks like it would literally have housed, long ago, yards; it's an open space off Market Street with buildings on all sides. But the buildings have been redeveloped, adapted and beautifully painted, so that the space feels more like a haven than a commercial area.

The shop itself, near the entrance to the Yards, sells second-hand books, specialising in horror, science fiction and fantasy. But there are also comics (great covers from the 'Dracula' comic on the walls), graphic novels, children's books and classic literature. I bought this while I was there, as well as a great old copy of 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' to replace the one I've lost:

Michelle bought a nice edition of Hardy's shorter poems too. We thought about buying some of the fantastic, full-colour vintage horror movie pictures on sale -- they would make great presents -- but decided we'd better save some money and come back another time. And we will go back; second-hand bookshops are the only place for real booklovers to be, and they are quite a rarity these days, at least in our fair county. Use them, as the saying goes, or lose them.


Friday, September 28, 2018

Ex Libris Dan Davin


This book is a 1962 Oxford University Press edition of Dostoyevsky's letters, edited by Jessie Coulson. Michelle found it in a charity shop yesterday; it was about to be sent to Africa but the manager, knowing my predilection for old literary books, sold it to Michelle instead.

I'm glad she did. When I checked inside I found a glued-in bookplate bearing the motto 'Fortiter et Fideliter' (Bravely and Faithfully) and Ex Libris D.M. Davin. (Ex Libris meaning 'from the books of..', signifying, therefore, ownership.)

As I always do when there's a name inside a book, I did a little research online; and I'm almost certain I found this book's owner. Let me, as a fan of the Inspector Morse books and programmes, explain the reasoning behind my near-certainty before I give you the big reveal you are undoubtedly waiting for with trembling anticipation.

The book's owner had an interest in literature, whatever his or her feelings about popular fiction may have been.That's obvious. This person was a serious reader, if that word isn't too snobbish.

The book's owner had a connection to a school, college, association, press or family of some status, as the bookplate bears a coat of arms with the Latin inscription already mentioned beneath it. (I haven't located the coat of arms yet.)

The book's owner may have had a classical education. He or she at least grew up, lived or worked among educated people. I have seen older bookplates without an ex libris. I have books from 1910 and 1912 inscribed simply, and in pencil or ink.

The book's owner may have lived and worked not too far away from Northampton. Second-hand  books can travel long distances when the original owner lets them go, but a closer connection does establish probability (or at least possibility) of ownership.

None of the above, singly, or all of them together, provide cast-iron proof about who may or may not have owned a book 56 years ago, but after much googling, my belief is that the D.M. Davin who once owned the book I now own was Daniel Marcus Davin, New Zealand author, Rhodes scholar, WWII soldier and intelligence officer, fellow of Balliol College, author, literary critic and long-time employee of the Oxford University Press.

How many others are there to choose from? Well, precisely none. Google, in its infinite capacity to seek out obscure, lost and forgotten information from the dim recesses of the past, could produce only one D.M. Davin for me. And he met, and exceeded, all of the criteria I outline above.

There may be another Dan Davin out there, or a Dawn Davin, but if this beautiful OUP edition of Dostoyevsky's letters wasn't this man's, I'm a Nobel Laureate.

Davin's career as a novelist, according to different internet sources, began promisingly with 'For the Rest of Our Lives' in 1947, but failed to flower into something enduring and substantial. I don't know; I've never read the books, though I might, now a little piece of his life has come into my possession.

As a man, and an intellectual, Davin squandered his talent and his creative energy, so these sources say, on critical writing and his tendency to give too much of himself away to younger writers while holding court in his favourite Oxford pubs. especially the Gardeners Arms. The picture of Davin shows him outside the Gardeners. Am I alone in thinking he looks a little merry?

Not remembered in England, still 'cherished' in New Zealand.

Camerado, this is no book.
Who touches this touches a man.

(Walt Whitman 'Leaves of Grass')




Monday, September 24, 2018

Mac Flecknoe: My First Encounter with Poetry



Michelle noticed John Dryden carved in stone on the front of Northampton Public Library a few days ago. Neither of us had ever noticed it before, but it turns out that Dryden was born in our fair county, in the miniscule village of Aldwincle. As far as I'm aware he's the only Northamptonshire poet to become Poet Laureate, not that that is an accolade most of us would seek.

Reading Dryden's history I remembered how I first came across him. It was in my English A Level class at Tresham College in Kettering. The year would have been 1981 or '82. Dryden's 'Absalom and Achitophel' was one of the set texts. I have learned, subsequently, that the poem is considered very important; I, however, couldn't follow it, and consequently I was tremendously bored by it.

'Mac Flecknoe', though, worked instantly for me, partly because it was easier to understand, but also because it was so joyously malicious:

All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.

These are the six lines that open the poem, which is a sustained
satirical attack on the poet Thomas Shadwell, whose name, at least
in the text we studied, was rendered 'Sh----'. Mr. Hassett, our
teacher,who knew how to pique the interest of teenagers,
encouraged us to believe that this was what a commentator I read 
years later called a 'faecal innuendo'. It might have been, but since
'shit' and 'Shadwell' are syllabically different, I doubt it.

Still, we loved to believe it then. Mr Hassett wanted us believe it, 
and he laughed along with us. He treated the rest of the poem, with 
its savage wit and scatological detail, as a celebration of something 
delightfully illicit too, like smoking your first joint with a grownup;
and by doing so, he made the poem seem so much more immediate,
so much more interesting, so much less of an irrelevant old
museum piece, than it might have been in someone else's hands.

I began to pay attention to poetry because of that encounter with 
'Mac Flecknoe'. It primed me for my great awakening only a year 
later when I bought a Bob Dylan album and heard 'Kaddish' for the 
first time. After that, as I've written before, my world was
completely changed. But even today I love the satirical poets of the
Restoration and the Augustan period. I haven't gone back to Dryden
yet, but I might one day; I have 25 unread books on the floor by my
sofa, so I'd better get through those first.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Latest First Anniversary



The other day it occurred to me, with a smirk of satisfaction, that I haven't had a seizure for a year. Of course, these anniversaries are meaningless in a way. I could have one ten, twenty, thirty seconds from now and be right back where I started. I have gone for longer than a year without seizures too. Once I lasted eighteen months and thought I had beaten the condition, to whatever extent a permanent condition can be beaten. But last year, in the space of a few months, I had three very bad seizures; once I might even have died had my partner not been with me when it happened. So I will allow myself a small moment of celebration.

I have not gone without my brushes with the condition this year. I've had multiple warnings -- auditory and visual hallucinations that can precede a seizure. They often came when I was over-tired, or when I watched television in the dark, or looked at a computer screen for too long without a break. They came when I was feeling under pressure too. Only yesterday, on the bus going to a meeting I didn't want to attend, the warning happened, and as usual I thought a seizure might be seconds away. Fortunately, it wasn't; I just had to sit through the meeting with a headache and the nausea that warnings -- one might call them false warnings -- leave you with.

Today, on my latest first anniversary, I am feeling good, if a little tired after waking up early and getting no fresh air since. Will I go another day without having a seizure? Will I go another month? Another year? I don't expect anything from my condition except surprises, so we'll see what happens. As Raymond Carver once (beautifully) wrote, as part of a longer poem:

After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”


'Gravy' by Raymond Carver


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Casting Out the Devil: Living with the Stigma of Epilepsy



Recently I lost my job. I'd been working at House of Fraser's Wellingborough warehouse for four years. Last year we began hearing whispers about its financial problems. Then DHL lost the contract to deliver the service for House of Fraser; it was won by XPO, who, we all presumed, had promised to deliver the same service for less money. But whatever was happening in the offices over our heads didn't work. House of Fraser went into administration and was bought by Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, where the abuse of workers was so infamous Ashley was called to explain himself in Parliament. (As far as I'm aware, not much changed.) Ashley, as the new boss at House of Fraser, immediately fell into a dispute with XPO, who wanted some assurance that he would make good on the millions of pounds they'd invested in automation to make the service more 'efficient'. He said he would pay them nothing; he was under no legal obligation to pay, so he wouldn't. It was war. And we, the ordinary workers, were the victims. Everybody at the warehouse employed by an agency -- the number ran into the hundreds -- was told with only a couple of days' notice not to come into work anymore. My agency promised to find us all other jobs. I expressed an interest in a certain warehouse on the outside of Northampton, my choice dictated by amenable hours and the accessibility of the place by bus. I'd had enough of the four-hour commute I'd put myself through every night for the last four years just to get to Wellingborough, only ten miles from my house. And everything seemed to be set; at a jobs fair I'd attended they said the company were desperate for new staff. I even spoke to the agency man who supervised that particular contract, asking him if he knew when I might be starting. 'I'm talking to the manager this afternoon,' he told me. 'He'll tell me what sort of volumes he needs and when, and I'll get back to you.' (People are 'volumes' now in the workplace.) That call happened six weeks ago and I've had no reply. Why? I can only guess. When the agency staff were laid off at House of Fraser, the supervisor there said our personal files would be passed directly on to the supervisor in our new workplace. And on my file there is one word that, in the years since my diagnosis, has changed everything: EPILEPSY. The same agency knew about my epilepsy at House of Fraser; but I'd already been in the job for two years when I was asked to make a health declaration by either the agency or DHL, so I lied and said I'd just been diagnosed. I knew what would happen if I didn't. I'd been treated like a pariah by employers since I started having seizures. It makes you guarded about what you say and to whom, and it cautions you always to expect the worst. The worst, after all, usually happens. But since, as far as they knew, my epilepsy was a recent discovery, they couldn't fire me because of it. That, of course, would be discrimination. Hiring someone who you know to be epileptic, of course, is quite a different matter. And you can have all the anti-discrimination laws you like, but if an employer doesn't want you because you're black, or a woman, or you have a learning difficulty, or you're in a wheelchair, or you have a long-term medical condition like I have, all they have to do is say, 'We went with someone with more experience,' and nobody can contradict them. Unless you can afford to go to court.
When I tell prospective employers I have epilepsy it's like the kiss of death. You can see the horror in their faces as they try to calculate how to respond to my disclosure without landing their company in a lot of legal trouble. One care work company actually had their lawyers on me, and insisted I give the company directors access to my medical records.And I have informed another agency in the last six weeks about my condition and despite my experience, my qualifications and my immaculate (ironic, isn't it?) sickness record, they can find nothing for me either.
Is this a coincidence? Have I become, in the last few years, mysteriously unemployable? Perhaps, but I don't think so. All of which leads me to an obvious solution. If I want work, I will just have to lie about my health as I did before to get work. But then, every company I've worked for in the last decade does random drug testing. If something you're taking is detected in your urine sample, and you haven't declared it, you will be instantly dismissed. As an epileptic I have to avoid stress. I can't be fearing, every day when I go to work, that I won't have a job before my shift is finished. I've got my seizures under control now, more or less; that kind of anxiety would put me on the floor again in hours. I can only hope that something good comes along, and while I'm waiting for that to happen, do a little retraining. Warehousing was all I could do when my epilepsy barred me from continuing in care work. Maybe if I learned how to do something else, I'll find less fear, more open-mindedness about what is, after all, a condition which many of us can have and lead perfectly normal, safe and productive lives. After being seizure-free for a certain amount of time a person is allowed to drive again; if you are considered safe behind the wheel of a car on a busy road, where could you, with any justice, be considered a danger?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Shipwrecked in Trumpland

There's a poetry page I've recently discovered that's doing something I think is really important. It's called Winedrunk Sidewalk: Shipwrecked in Trumpland and as the name suggests, it publishes a lot of poems about Donald Trump. I don't know if it has ever published any poetry in praise of Trump; I'd be surprised if anyone had written any, at least any that were publishable. But the anti-Trump poetry is fierce. So are some of the other pieces, all of which the editor, John Grochalski, selects to build a picture of life in Trump's America. Don't like messages in your poetry? Think writers should stay out of politics? The quality of the work in Winedrunk Sidewalk makes those objections redundant anyway, but as I'm sure John would agree, there are times when intellectual detachment just isn't good enough. The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a racist, a homophobe, a self-confessed sexual predator and an enemy of the free press. Only weeks ago a socialist bookstore in London was raided by fascists. Can we continue to turn our backs and pretend everything's dandy when the world we grew up in, as fucked up as it was, is collapsing around our ears?