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Sunday, 28 July 2013

My Year of Meats


So what you’re basically saying is that the residues in meat from hormones, steroids, pesticides, bacterial and viral contaminants, will lead to cancers, infertility, brain fevers, and a host of other illnesses, which we will not be able to cure with antibiotics because our tolerances have been jacked up by the residues also found in meat? So we are doomed to die young and not be able to reproduce ourselves in the bargain? – Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats

Ruth Ozeki worked in television and film for some thirteen years; she refers to herself as “a lapsed documentarian”. Her documentary and dramatic films have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country. That the ‘lead role’ in her first novel should go to a documentary filmmaker should come as no big surprise. The book started off small:

I’d worked in this small niche of the media industry for eight or nine years, and during that time, it always struck me that the funniest, most interesting, most tragic, and most culturally profound interactions always happened either behind the camera or when the camera was turned off. I hate wasting good narrative and am an archivist at heart, so I decided to record some of the anecdotes.[1]

This wasn’t even going to be a novel at first but as she continued writing she found a voice that she realised “was strong enough, and had enough to say, to sustain a novel.” But what was the book to be about?

The meat was metaphorical, a gag, if you will. As Jane and her crew embarked on a road trip to make a cooking show featuring rural American housewives (I’d done a similar kind of show myself and found it rich in narrative episode), meat took on a variety of metaphorical resonance: I was thinking of women as cows; wives as chattel (a word related to cattle); and the body as meat, fleshy, sexual, the irreducible element of human identity.

As writers we don’t often write the books we set out to write; we write the books that need to be written. As she did more research Ruth realised she was onto something:

You are what you eat, right? I was already several hundred pages into the novel when I realized I needed to take the meat issue more seriously. I started doing research on the industry, and I was pretty appalled at what I found out. I fed this information to Jane, who acted upon it, and this is how the plot of the novel developed.

The book reflects this change in perspective.

Jane Takagi-Little is, as already mentioned, a documentary filmmaker. She gets hired to work on a show for Japanese TV called My American Wife! This is how the show is pitched to her:

My American Wife!

Meat is the Message. Each weekly half-hour episode of My American Wife! must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! Of course, the “Wife of the Week” is important too. She must be attractive, appetizing, and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust, yet never tough or hard to digest. Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.

The show is sponsored by a company called BEEF-EX and their goal is simple: Turn Japanese wives onto American meat especially beef. Their motto? “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!” The show is to last a half hour and will be broadcast at eight o’clock on Saturday mornings so not primetime TV—far from it—but the sponsors are very serious about it. Once Jane agrees to take part the details in that initial pitch are made crystal clear:


  1. Attractiveness, wholesomeness, warm personality
  2. Delicious meat recipe (NOTE: Pork and other meats is second class meats, so please remember this easy motto: “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!”)
  3. Attractive, docile husband
  4. Attractive, obedient children
  5. Attractive, wholesome lifestyle
  6. Attractive, clean house
  7. Attractive friends & neighbours
  8. Exciting hobbies


  1. Physical imperfections
  2. Obesity
  3. Squalor
  4. Second class peoples


Documentaries are all about truth, right? Yeah, right. BEEF-EX want their truth presented to the Japanese people: Beef is wholesome. Beef is good for you. Buy beef. But why the hard sell? The Japanese are big fish eaters. Accounting for nearly 23 percent of the average Japanese person’s protein intake, most Japanese consume an average of 128 pounds of seafood every year on a per capita basis—four times the global average according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The eating of meat in Japan is a relatively new custom. In the Heian Court, which ruled from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, it was certainly considered uncouth; due to the influences of Buddhism, meat was more than likely thought to be unclean.

The first show does not go too well. Suzi Flowers, the first American Wife, misunderstands the instructions. She was supposed to have prepared the Slow Cooker Coca-Cola BBQ Roast Beefmeats in multiples, in stages, and so the crew has to hang around for hours while she prepares her Coca-Cola Roast:

The meat-cooking section was the most important part of the show, Jane said. It had to be interesting. So to make up for not having enough steps, the director decided to take lots of different shots of the same steps over and over again. But Suzie had bought only enough ingredients to make one rump roast, so they had to go out to the grocery store and buy a dozen economy-size bottles of Pepsi because the store had run out of Coke. Unfortunately they couldn’t find another rump roast that looked the same, and in between each take, Suzie had to wash off the raw meat in the sink and pat it dry with paper towels and make it look new again.

Things go from bad to worse: in the Sociological Survey part of the show (a supposedly humorous Q+A) her husband ends up confessing to an affair with a cocktail waitress and walks out of the show and on his wife. Somehow enough material gets shot and kluged together to make a viable programme even if the Romantic Evening Kiss—which had been filmed much earlier on—looked ludicrous at the end of the show. Perhaps she’d forgiven him and they’d made up—was that the message? Despite the problems encountered during the production the first programme of the show is a ratings success:

[T]he first episodes we’d shot had scored ratings of up to 7.8 percent and penetrated approximately 9,563,310 households. This was very good. With an average of 3.0 persons per household, an estimated 28,689,930 members of the Japanese population watched our show, and the sponsors were pleased. I mean, that’s a lot of sirloin.

Watching this show is Akiko Ueno, wife of Joichi, one of the show’s directors who likes to get called “John” (as in Wayne—think about it). She comes across as your stereotypical, submissive Japanese housewife but her husband is not deserving of the respect she honours him with; he’s a bully on a good day and a wife beater the rest of the time. Her job as his wife, he informs her, is to watch the show when it is aired, buy the necessary ingredients to make that week’s dish, prepare it and serve it to him that evening when he returns from work. She also has to complete a questionnaire ranking the show for things like General Interest, Educational Value, Authenticity, Wholesomeness, Availability of Ingredients, and Deliciousness of Meat:

“You will help me with the campaign … and learn to cook meat too. Fatten you up a little.” Then, all of a sudden, he got very serious. He sat straight up on his knees in front of her, spine stiff, head bowed.

“It was on account of your condition that I was able to have this wonderful idea for the BEEF-EX campaign in the first place,” he said in formal Japanese. “I have received great praise from my superiors at the company, and if everything goes well I shall get a significant advancement too.” He bowed deeply in front of her, touching his head to the tatami floor. “I am most grateful to you.”

Akiko blushed, heart pounding with pleasure, then she realized he was drunk.

Her “condition” is that she’s bulimic. Her husband doesn’t realise—he’s not the most observant of men—but puts down the fact she can’t conceive to whatever this condition is she has; she’s as thin as a rake. The meat, however, does not help; she simply can’t keep it down. I don’t think John Wayne ever played a bad guy although he played a few unpleasant ones but “John” Ueno is most definitely your clichéd, moustache-twirling baddie. At least that’s how many look on him. When asked how she would respond to a reader who said that Joichi Ueno’s character was one-dimensional Ozaki replied:

I’d agree that he is perhaps more simply depicted than Jane and Akiko, but then maintain that he is not a point-of-view character and the book isn’t really about him. One thing that has surprised me is that some readers feel so little empathy for him. Sure, he is the villain of the book, but he is a sad man, too. He is caught between a rock and a hard place, between his American bosses and Japanese corporate culture on one hand, and two highly subversive women on the other. He feels extreme rage and he has a substance-abuse problem; he handles himself very badly. I think his position is interesting, compromised, and one I can relate to.

I’m afraid I had very little … no, that’s not true … I had no sympathy for this guy at all. I felt more for the man who was poisoning his family through using banned chemicals.

So we have a woman in America making documentaries and a woman in Japan being affected by them. A simple and effective premise. Of course as Jane starts to get more involved in the show—taking over full directorial duties—she find it harder and harder to present the kind of sanitised show the sponsors want. And so she pushes. And they push back. Perhaps the low point (for her) is the show with the lesbians—two American Wives for the price of one—and she might’ve got away with that if they hadn’t been vegetarians; BEEF-EX did not like that. Perversely this is the show that affects Akiko the most.

a-tale-for-the-time-beingAs with Ozeki’s most recent book, A Tale for the Time Being, the narrative rocks back and forward between Jane and Akiko, Jane’s story being told in the first person, Akiko’s being told in the third. Both women end up having to take a long, hard look at what they’re doing with their lives: can they, in good conscience, continue with the lives/lies they’ve been living? Will Jane make the documentary-that-really-needs-to-be-made? Will Akiko get her act together and leave her domineering husband? Will “John” get what he deserves? Of course there’s a bit of a hiccup when it looks like Jane’s lost the video with all the incriminating evidence on it and things go very badly for Akiko when her husband discovers the fax hidden in the dictionary—she ends up hospitalised—but these are only temporary setbacks. Two happy-endings-of-sorts are on the cards.

Ozeki said she never set out to write what she calls “a novel of causes” but it’s hard for her, albeit through her characters, not to get a little preachy:

If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even. The faux-dumb aesthetic that dominates TV and Hollywood must be about this. Fed on a media diet of really bad news, we live in a perpetual state of repressed panic. We are paralyzed by bad knowledge, from which the only escape is playing dumb. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. Stupidity becomes pro-active, a political statement. Our collective norm.

Having enjoyed reading A Tale for the Time Being I was interested to see what she’d done before. I chose her first novel because it looked like it was going to have a similar premise and it does. In A Tale for the Time Being I was willing to accept the similarities between the two women as more than a coincidence, in fact it’s an important part of the story that the young girl’s diary gets into the right reader’s hands. In My Year of Meats I found the connection between the two women a little more contrived or at least convenient but not impossible. The supporting cast also veered more towards the stereotypical, even the caricatured at times. Had this book been written by a monocultural American I might have shrugged it off as bad writing but since Ozeki is half-Japanese and lived for several years in Japan I’m not so quick to judge. I’m British and so none of the characters in this book felt real to me and there was no one I felt I’d enjoy having a cup of coffee with.

On the whole the book has received a lot of praise and, as far as it’s “cause” goes I can see why. She wraps up her message a little neater than Morgan Spurlock might have (I’m thinking about his documentary Super Size Me) but the message still comes across loud and clear. It won’t stop me eating meat—although I’m not a huge fan of steak—but then I live in the UK and I like to think we hold ourselves to a higher standard (here in Scotland, most beef is grassfed) but maybe I’m deluding myself.

The book has just been released in the UK by Canongate along with Ozeki’s second novel, All Over Creation.


images My Year of Meats won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award, the Imus/Barnes and Noble American Book Award, and a Special Jury Prize of the World Cookbook Awards in Versaille. All Over Creation was awarded a 2004 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, as well as the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction. A Tale for the Time Being won the IBW Book Award 2013.

Ruth Ozeki was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by an American father and a Japanese mother. She studied English and Asian Studies at Smith College and travelled extensively in Asia. She received a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara University.

Ozeki, a frequent speaker on college and university campuses, currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she lives with her husband, artist, Oliver Kellhammer. She serves on the advisory editorial board of the Asian American Literary Review and on the Creative Advisory Council of Hedgebrook. She practices Zen Buddhism with Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and is the editor of the Everyday Zen website. She was ordained as a Sōtō Zen priest in June, 2010.


[1] All quotes from the interview at the back of the Penguin edition

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Last Banquet

Last Banquet

We seek the immortality of fame around the same time our bodies begin to seek the sweet peace of oblivion. Such is the contradiction of being human. – Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet

I haven’t read a great many historical novels—really only a handful and they’ve all been reviewed here—and I wouldn’t present myself as a fan of the genre although I have been impressed by the lengths these authors go to in their quest to present the past as faithfully as possible. Indeed it strikes me that, for those people who are aficionados, a significant part of the pleasure they must glean from reading has to be derived from this quest for accuracy in all things. If this describes you then The Last Banquet has much going for it and I certainly learned a thing or two about 18th century France in the lead up to the French Revolution which is where the book ends.

That said, I have to say I groaned when I saw what Canongate had sent me. I’d seen the book in their catalogue and passed on by but as the book was here anyway I dutifully stuck it on my to-read shelf and, when its turn came, removed the dust jacket without bothering to look at it or scan the blurb and started reading. So I came to this book about as ignorant as one could be. By this time I’d even forgotten when and where the book was set. It begins as follows:

Dung-heap Meals

aphodius-fossorMy earliest memory is sitting with my back to a dung heap in the summer crunching happily on a stag beetle and wiping its juice from my chin and licking my lips and wondering how long it would take me to find another.

Beetles taste of what they eat. Everything edible tastes of what it eats or takes from the soil, and the stag beetles that fed on the dung in my father’s courtyard were sweet from the dung, which was sweet from the roadside grass. I had fed the horse the last of the hay and knew it was in a ramshackle stall behind me so the clip clop echoing in the courtyard’s arch had to come from another.

I could stand and bow as I’d been taught. But the sun was hot that summer and my mother and father were still asleep in their room with the shutters closed and I’d been ordered not to disturb them so I stayed where I was.

Luck brought me another stag beetle as the stranger cleared the arch and I popped it into my mouth before he could demand that I share.

What makes a good story? For me it’s only ever one thing: character. It doesn’t matter what the plot is or where it’s set, as long as there are good, believable and likeable-even-if-they’re-horrible characters—I’m thinking along the lines of Cruella de Vil here—then everything else is forgivable, even a tendency to overuse the word ‘and’. By the time I’d read the above—which is about all there is on the first page—I found myself wanting to like this child. I didn’t know its age but it was probably a boy since girls curtsey rather than bow and as much as the thought of eating a dung beetle disgusts me personally there was something equally appealing about this boy. I would’ve been disappointed if he were not likeable.

Literature is peppered with affable brats (most of them Dickensian, at least that’s how it feels) and young Jean-Marie—Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumount, to give him his full name (yes, he’s nobility)—is one of them although (sadly) he doesn’t stay a five-year-old for very long because by the next short chapter he’s turned six; at the start of the third he’s nine but within three pages he’s jumped to eleven. And the years fairly gallop by: 1730 … 1734 … 1736 … and all the way down to 1790. Whereas Dickens would’ve probably have stopped in young adulthood—I’m thinking along the lines of Great Expectations—we get to experience this whole man’s life beginning with the dung heap and ending with the barbarians at the gate.

Jean-Marie is living in interesting times. The thing is he’s not especially interested in the times. There are other things far more interesting that politics. Gastronomy for one. Some fifteen years ago, when Grimwood wrote the first draft of this novel, he’d called it Taste. That changed in time to Master of the Menagerie and finally ended up as The Last Banquet. All are decent titles—and emphasise different aspects of the book—but I can see why he went with the more obvious Taste first of all. The book has been compared to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (which, in some other universe, is probably called Smell) and the comparison is a reasonable one. Over the years Jean-Marie pops most things in his mouth, from what he can get a hold of locally—mice (taste like chicken), sparrows (taste like chicken), cats (tastes like chicken), dogs (taste like sour mutton)—to the exotic—tigers, alligators, flamingos and cheese made from human breast milk. From an early age he records his attempts to cook these items and in time builds up an impressive (if esoteric) cookbook. But first he has to grow up.

The horse he hears in the opening chapter belongs to le Régent (the duc d’Orléans) and he takes a definite shine to the boy. The boy’s parents aren’t sleeping—they’re dead—and so le Régent takes the young Jean-Marie under his wing and arranges for his care. First he goes to an orphanage until he is of age to attend school and from there he moves on to military academy. Between these two establishments he Ranksmeets a number of boys who will become lifelong friends: first, Emile Duras—“[t]he lack of the particule, the de in his name, set him apart from the others”—then Jerome (Vicomte Jerome de Caussard, second son of the comte de Caussard) and, more importantly, Charlot (Charles, marquis de Saulx; his father is the duke).

Under the care and tutelage of these three, Jean-Marie finds his place in the world. Oddly enough it’s not in the kitchen—nobles don’t work—at least not officially; as he’s a good student his eccentricity is indulged. Charlot becomes the most important of his friends because it’s through him and an invite to the family home, the Chateau de Saulx, that he finds the means to ingratiate himself with the family and ultimately receive the duke’s patronage. It’s all about who you know although he doesn’t go out of his way to curry favour; he just happens to be in the right place at the right time and that place just happens to be standing between the duke’s second daughter, Virginie, and a ravenous wolf. From there on it’s only a matter of exercising a little patience and he’s in a position to ask for Virginie’s hand in marriage. He’s twenty-one by this time (we’re up to 1738) and Dickens—Austen for sure—would probably have wound up everything with a glorious marriage having taken six hundred pages to get there. Grimwood’s got us here in a mere 139 pages and there’re still just over two hundred to go. What to fill them with?

Europa coverThis is where I started to lose interest a little. Things happen, the story keep moving, children grow up, people die, Jean-Marie sets to restoring his family home and all the while in the background trouble is fomenting. And that’s the thing about this book. It’s a bit easy to get caught up in the action and not pay as much attention to the shifting setting, little things like the peasants beginning to meet the nobles’ gaze. Unlike Perfume Jean-Marie’s interest in experiencing every culinary delight he can never develops into quite the same obsession as smell does for Grenouille—it’s not as if he’s about to sell the family home to finance trips to foreign lands to experience exquisite new tastes—but he makes the most of the opportunities that come his way. For example, Versailles.

What do you think of what you hear the word Versailles? Opulence? Extravagance? Shit? I have to say I thought Grimwood was making stuff up when he writes about the Palace of Versailles but apparently not. I had to look it up to check:

Versailles fell into a decline during the last years of the Bourbons. It was inhabited by Louis XVI and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette before they were sent ‘to the scaffold’. The troubles were a direct consequence of the monarchy’s weakness. It was running out of authority and it had run out of money. One thinks of Versailles as the grandest palace in Europe must also have been it most luxurious. ‘In actuality Versailles was a vast cesspool, reeking of filth and befouled with ordure…The odour clung to clothes, wigs, even undergarments. Worst of all, beggars, servants, and aristocratic visitors alike used the stairs, the corridors, any out-of-the-way place to relieve themselves… “I shall never get over the dirt of this country,” Horace Walpole grumbled, and he had travelled extensively. The approach to Versailles, the English agreed, was magnificent, along wide roads shaded with stately trees. But the squalor inside was unspeakable.’ Versailles in the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette,

Whilst there with his son, Laurant, Jean-Marie gets to visit the animals and he draws a comparison between the caged animals and Versailles itself:

Hearing the cry of a wild animal and remembering the menageries I realised what it was I saw.

A human zoo built by a king to keep his courtiers captive.

It was not even a prison. Those in prison know that’s where they are. That must be true. Animals born to a zoo know no other life; for them captivity is all the life there is and all there has ever been. Looking down at that edifice I knew I could never live there no matter what honour was offered.

When he learns that an old tigress and her blind cub are to be killed he says he’ll give them both a home. It is there and then that his old friend Jerome comes up with the title Lord Master of the Menagerie, making up the duties as he goes along; the position had not existed prior to this:

Don’t worry, there will be no official duties and you don’t even have to live here if you don’t want, since the king hasn’t demanded it…

Jean-Marie is grateful. He’s become quite the country gent and is keen to get back to his home with his new project. Of course he does intend to eat the tiger once she dies but not until she dies of natural causes even if she might be a bit tough by then.

2nd Europa coverThe young are endearing. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about young humans or young animals. The problem is that they have to grow up. The little boy we encountered in the first chapter is now a grown man and, although he has his quirks, not much of the child remains. Two things, perhaps: his willingness to sample anything new and the fact that, despite his position, he really has no airs and graces. When his first wife dies he even marries a commoner, his son’s nurse, Manon—there’s a name for it too: morganatic marriage—and she becomes vicomtesse rather than a full-blown marquise. The rich and their ruddy titles. It makes no difference to either of them; they’re not that kind of people:

There was a familiarity in the way she talked to me that troubled some of our neighbours. Our conversation lacked the formality found in their marriages, our affections and occasional irritations, best kept behind closed doors, bled into open conversation. So be it. We were shaped by how we’d begun.

I started to think of my life as clay. That day by the dung heap, my life was entirely malleable, soft to the touch and easy to shape. Slowly it dried and grew stiff, until I began to accept the shape it had because change was hard.

The book could easily have wound down at this point but we’re only at 1768 and unless Grimwood intended to bring the French Revolution forward a few years he needed to give something for Jean-Marie to do for a bit apart from improving his estate, building new kitchens and cooking and preserving whole pigs in gigantic glass jars. A diplomatic trip to Corsica proves a distraction as well as a visit from Ben Franklin in 1777 in his role as an agent for the American colonies. Naïvely Jean-Marie thinks his visit has been prompted by interest in his experiments. It falls to Manon to put him straight:

‘My poor boy,’ she says, ‘There is a war on. The American colonies are fighting for their lives. They have more important things to think about than how to grow potatoes or bottle a gazelle…’

The penultimate chapter begins:


The rest is history or will be for those who come to write it after us. I doubt they will be kind, and why would they? They will see our sins and forget out graces.

Out in the sticks it takes a little time for the wave of anger to reach him but by the time it does he’s prepared even if he doesn’t deserve what’s coming. For all he became rich and mingled with the even richer Jean-Marie never forgot who he was; he looked after his peasants as best they would let him. When the mob comes for his chateau—in lieu of supposedly unpaid taxes—it is empty apart from an old man and—in tigers’ years—an even older tiger. Time for the last banquet.

This is a biography, albeit a fictional one, and as such it suffers from the same limitations that a lot of biographies of worthy subjects do. Bits of Jean-Marie’s life are interesting—some even exciting—but most of his life is not. He’s had greatness—or at least a title and financial security—thrust upon him, he marries, has kids, loses people—some to death and others to politics—and he grows old and contented. So, no, for the most part this isn’t a riveting book in that regard. But despite its limitations it held my interest. There was a little too much sex for my tastes—seriously this guy wants to taste everything—but although descriptive it never becomes graphic and certainly not pornographic. We never get embroiled in the politics of the court. We’re aware of what’s going on, just as we’re aware of the peasants readying themselves for revolt, but Jean-Marie can afford to be in a wee world of his own and so stays there; the outside is visible through a skin of metaphorical soapy water but it’s distorted. Only at the very end does the bubble burst.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected but not as much as I’d hoped. Foodies will appreciate the recipes even if it’s doubtful they’ll even get a chance to savour any of them although Dragon & Tiger sounds interesting. (That’s cat and snake by the way.)

The book is up at Google Books where you can read a fair chunk of it here.


grimwoodJon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Malta and christened in the upturned bell of a ship. He grew up in the Far East, Britain and Scandinavia. Apart from novels he writes for magazines and newspapers. For five years he wrote a monthly review column for The Guardian. He has also written for The Times, The Telegraph and The Independent. Wikipedia describes him as a “British science fiction and fantasy author.” This is not inaccurate; The Last Banquet is his first literary novel.

Felaheen, the third of his novels featuring Asraf Bey, a half-Berber detective, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. So did End of the World Blues, about a British sniper on the run from Iraq and running an Irish bar in Tokyo. His novels have been shortlisted for numerous other awards including the Arthur C Clarke Award (twice) and the John W Campbell Memorial Award.

The Fallen Blade, the first of three novels set in an alternate 15th-century Venice was published in 2011 and has gone into ten languages in twelve territories. The Outcast Blade, its sequel, was published in 2012. The final volume of the Assassini novels, The Exiled Blade, was published 30 April 2013.

His work is published in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Turkish, Japanese, Danish, Finnish, Dutch and American, among others.

He is married to the journalist and novelist Sam Baker, who recently resigned as editor-in-chief of Red magazine to work on a start-up. They divide their time between Winchester and Paris...

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Silent Noon


You can’t go back to a place that no longer exists. – Trilby Kent, Silent Noon

When I agreed to review this book I was labouring under the impression that it was a YA novel. The mistake was completely mine because nowhere in the press release does it say that it’s aimed at young adults despite focusing on the lives of three teenagers. Perhaps what got me thinking that way is the way the book was presented:

A new novel from the winner of the Canadian Children's Literature Award for her novel Stones for My Father which also won the Africana Children's Book of the Year award in 2012. Silent Noon has also 14-15 years old protagonists...

On reading this I assumed the book was aimed at fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds but it’s really not although, that said, I guess it depends on your fourteen- or fifteen-year-old. My gut feeling is that the book would be a bit too … ‘subtle’ is the word I kept coming back to as I was reading this book, but I think perhaps ‘understated’ might be a better choice. On the surface we have a set up for an Enid Blyton-style adventure: an island, a creepy old school, a triumvirate of young amateur detectives and more secrets than I would know where to start listing; there’s even some ginger beer. Of course had it been written by Enid Blyton it would probably have been called The Mystery of Lindsey Island rather than Silent Noon which isn’t in my opinion a very memorable title. After the book’s climax there are silences everywhere but you have to cover a lot of ground before you get there. It seems, however, much thought went into the title. Trilby told me:

We struggled with the title for ages. At first it had been The Peppermill, then The Devil's Purse. Silent Noon was deemed more reflective of the tone and content, and I have to say I like the way it inverts what is known as a love poem – there's actually a lot more ambivalence and sadness in the Rossetti text, I think, than we often remember.

The poem she’s referring to is this one:

Silent Noon

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, —
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: —
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Having read the book I can maybe see why she—and, presumably, her editor—went with this one. I think if I’d been in that room I might’ve argued for The Devil’s Purse though. It depends on what one regards as the novel’s pivotal moment and I really can’t say more without revealing too much. There’s an analysis of the poem here which is quite helpful. The key lines for me are explained here:

In line eight, he says, “’Tis visible silence”. This right here is an oxymoron because silence is not able to be seen. But, this silence is so profound that it is visible. He uses a simile to say that this silence is “still as the hour glass”. This is paradoxical because an hour glass is only still when time runs out. But time never runs out and “Noon” will just continue into another hour.

titanicThat does make sense once you’ve read the book but I’m not sure many will get the Rossetti connection. The novel does lead up to a climax—which I assume takes place at noon (I can’t remember and I haven’t checked)—and after that the book drifts a bit towards its end. That sounds like a criticism but it’s not. The film Titanic doesn’t end when the ship goes down—it could, of course, and there are plenty of films that don’t hang around for any length of time after the climax (we assume everyone gets saved and gets on with their lives)—but the aftermath is also worth exploring at least for a bit and that’s what happens here. Does Barney rise triumphant from the ashes? Is this a character-defining moment or does he get swallowed up by the system? Orwell could feasibly have ended Nineteen Eighty-Four with Winston facing the rat—it would’ve worked—but those extra few pages made all the difference. The comparison between the two books might seem like an odd one at first but it’s less so than you might imagine.

The cover, however, is misleading. The three children in the picture are nothing like the three kids in the book all of whom are frankly troubled teenagers and two of which are overweight. I asked Trilby about this and she responded very much as I expected:

I completely agree with you about the cover. It's a strong image, but to me the kids are far too Call the Midwife, if you know what I mean. But as you rightly say, I had no input and it was presented to me as a done deal – the opinions of the marketing team rule!

The point I want to make is that I started this book with certain expectations and the book didn’t meet them which is not the book’s fault. In fact they worked to its advantage because what I found myself reading was better than I expected. Why that should be the case I’m not sure because I’d read Trilby Kent before—I reviewed her novel Smoke Portrait (now that was a good title) and really enjoyed it—anyway when I was offered two books for July this was the one I picked.

Here’s how the book’s blurb sets you up:

A story of displacement, betrayal – and the lingering past.

September 1953. Fourteen-year-old Barney Holland is promised a fresh start when he is offered a place at a boarding school on the remote North Sea island of Lindsey. Instead, he is shunned by his peers both for his status as a charity pupil and for being the replacement of a recently deceased student, the popular Cray. The arrival of Belinda Flood, a housemaster’s daughter stigmatized by her expulsion from another school, provides Barney with an unexpected ally. Both outsiders soon fall under the influence of charismatic senior pupil Ivor Morrell, who reigns over the forbidden corners of the school.

A gruesome find and the friendship with a local woman rumoured to have been a wartime collaborator draw the three into an increasingly dangerous web of personal and social shame. Gripped by mounting horror at his discovery of secrets harboured by the isolated school community, Barney personifies the struggle of a young peacetime generation finding its way out of the shadow of war.

See what I mean about the three kids on the cover? They just don’t work.

The story covers one term and is told mainly from the perspective of Barney Holland or ‘Camden Town’ as he gets called by some of the other kids although the narrative is written in the third person. He’s the outsider; everybody knows more about the island than he does. The trope is a well-worn one from Tom Brown’s School Days (the genre-founder in many ways although certainly not the first) through to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which breathed new life into the tired old boarding school novel) and although there’s plenty of scope for the novel to fall back on familiar and comfortable clichés (midnight feasts, pranks, bullying—there’s a scene in the book that reminded me of the infamous roasting episode from Tom Brown’s School Days) Trilby doesn’t do too bad a job of presenting a story that’s historically viable—she’s always been big on research—without it becoming caricatured; this is how people spoke and behaved back then so just sit back and enjoy it for what it is.

Lindsey Island, where Carding House School is located, was occupied by the Germans during World War II. One of his dad’s friends tells Barney, when they’d found he’d been offered a last minute place:

We ditched them in the war … Two weeks later, in come the Jerries, and they don’t leave until ’45. Right bastards they were, too.

The Book of Lies, Mary HorlockA while ago I reviewed The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock which was set on Guernsey. During World War II the only British territories to be occupied by the Germans were the Channel Islands and the only permanently inhabited islands are Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou and Lihou so I’m not sure where Lindsey Island is but I can only assume it’s fictitious. Lindsey is a real place—it’s situated in north Lincolnshire—and its origins date back to Anglo-Saxon days. The name Lindsey means the 'island of Lincoln': it was surrounded by water and very wet land but it’s still very much a part of mainland Britain which, as we love reminding people, was never occupied during the war. St Just, the other island mentioned, also came up a blank; St Just is a town—two towns actually—in Cornwall. There are no islands off the coast of Grimsby that I can see.

The book is not short on characters and I personally struggled to keep them all in my head.

The staff are Mr Runcie, the housemaster; Mr Pleming, the Headmaster (‘Ratty’); Mr Flood (‘Dolly’), whose daughter Belinda is now being taught along with the boys following some trouble at her last school; Doc Dower, the Maths teacher, who, it was rumoured, was a Japanese POW and Mr Swift, the French master, a former pupil of the school who also coaches the cross-country team and is generally known as a slave driver. There’s a school matron who’s only ever referred to as Matron and the groundsman, the taciturn Pole, Krawiec.

The boys are Barney; Robin Littlejohn, who’s in his set and the boy Mr Runcie assigns to show him the ropes (Barney develops what I’m going to call ‘feelings’ for the boy and I’ll leave it at that); Cowper and Shields who always seem be together; Percy (a.k.a. ‘Weeps’) and Hiram Opie, who’s a little bit ‘simple’ but “too old for primary school and too clever to go in a home”. The bed Barney’s assigned to was Henry Cray’s, a former pupil who died, so he’s told, in a plane crash coming back from holidays. This is how Robin describes their classmates:

“Percy and Cowper are middle-class duffers, like me,” Robin said. “Too thick to pass the common entrance, so our people tell their bourgeois friends they prefer to send us somewhere progressive. “He spoke briskly, bored by the fact of knowing everything. “Shields and Opie are military. They get locked up here because their people are always shuttling between Blighty and Malaysia, or Singapore, or Hong Kong – not like in the old days, where you’d actually get to live somewhere hot if your old man was posted there. You’re scholarship, aren’t you?”

In a letter home Barney outlines the school’s pecking order:

Sagartians are Sixth formers. Below that are Medes and then us Lydians. [He’s in Second Year] Sagartians and Medes can wear any jacket or shoes they like. First formers don’t get called anything.

A number of other boys get mentioned in passing and it’s hard to know who to hang onto as important: the only two of note are Hughes, a boy from another dormitory “whose cheeks were blotched with rosacea”—all Robin has to say about him is that he’s “downright revolting”—and Ivor Morrell who’s two years above Barney; his older brother Jonty was something of a war hero and there’s a plaque in the school chapel in his memory. It is whilst out on his first run that Barney encounters Ivor for the first time; he’s learned that there’s a bunker in the woods that some of the runners use to hide in. Ivor is the second member of the group of misfits that Barney becomes a part of. The third is Belinda Flood who, as the only girl in the school, is naturally not fitting in.

There are mysteries and secrets aplenty: what exactly happened to Cray, where’s Robin’s watch, are there still secret tunnels leading to an old German bunker, why did Krawiec come back from the States, where precisely does Belinda Flood go at night, what exactly did she find wrapped in newspaper and preserved from the elements by a piece of oilcloth in the walled garden by the kitchen and what has any of this to do with Miss Duchâtel and her memoir? And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Hard to tell at first what the real mystery might be.

In many respects, as with any good detective novel, most of the things we don’t know we really don’t need to know and the important things get swept along with everything else. Time is an important theme in this book although you don’t realise that at first. Had we begun with Barney as an old man looking back that might’ve helped but we don’t and so our realisation of what’s really important creeps up on us. The first page that jumped out at me was page 82 in which we hear a bit about Spike, Barney’s stepdad:

Spike had often told him that things happened in their right order. Spike believed in cycles and spirals and figures of eight, the rhythms of the tides and time recorded in sea rings. According to him, there was very little about life that was linear. He hadn’t cried at his own mother’s funeral, he once told Barney, because human emotions don’t work like that: you feel things at all the wrong times and that’s all right. You remember things out of order, too, but that just means you’re finding a way to make sense of it all. So, when in August the letter had arrived confirming that the school would be delighted to welcome Barney into the Second Form—and would his guardian please see to it that the vaccination checklist was completed as soon as possible—his stepfather had tapped the paper with one finger and said, “You see, Barn? To everything there is a season.

Tom Brown's School DaysI said this book is a boarding school novel and, of course, it is at its heart but it’s also not. I mentioned there’s a scene in the book reminiscent of the one in Tom Brown’s School Days and I asked Trilby about this:

The roasting scene was entirely intentional – I was thinking of it not as a cliché so much as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the longer tradition of school stories you mention. In some respects I wanted this to be an anti-school story (Barney's ultimate buying-in to the system being not so much a triumph as a weird defeat), but it seemed to me that this could only work if I acknowledged the conventions of the parent genre.

So that’s another thing about this book. You think you’re reading one thing when you’re actually reading something else entirely. This is a book about systems: social, national and political—is the Nineteen Eighty-Four connection starting to make sense? The school and the island are both microcosms of society. Just as the boarding school is a common trope so is the new transfer student. He provides the perfect proxy for us readers: he knows nothing; we know nothing; we learn together. The school, however, is only one group Barney finds himself having to fit in with and that’s what life’s like. That along the way he should lose some friends and have his ideals sullied is just life. And life sucks.


Trilby KentTrilby Kent's first novel for children, Medina Hill, was published by Tundra Books in Canada and the U.S. in October 2009. A second, Stones for My Father, appeared in 2012. Smoke Portrait, her first adult novel, came out in 2011.

As an undergraduate at Oxford University (History BA), she chose Special and Further Subjects in the Indian Nationalist Movement and The Middle East in the Age of Justinian. After graduating in 2004, she moved on to the London School of Economics, where she completed an MSc in Social Anthropology. She’s currently working on her PhD.

She has worked as a rare books specialist at a leading auction house and as a freelance journalist contributing investigative, arts and feature writing to the British and Canadian national press and to literary and news publications in America and Europe. In 2010 she was shortlisted for the Guardian's International Development Journalism Competition. Her short fiction has appeared in African American Review and Mslexia, among others.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Poetry of Harold Pinter


Pinter’s not a poet, but he doesn’t know it. – Daniel Finkelstein, The Times, 16 March 2005

In August 1950 two poems appeared in Poetry London 5—'New Year in the Midlands' and 'Chandeliers and Shadows'—both accredited to a new poet to the market[1], one Harold Pinta. This was not a typo although "stanzas from the two published poems were interchanged"[2] which must have been upsetting for the nineteen-year-old poet and I can imagine how he might have felt since my first published poem appeared sans title. Pinter had opted to use the pseudonym 'Pinta' "largely because one of his aunts was convinced—against all the evidence[3]—that the family came from distinguished Portuguese ancestors, the da Pintas,[4] an odd choice since, in the UK at least, everyone would have looked at 'Pinta' and read it as in 'pint of milk', at least I did.

So, like his long-time friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter began and ended his career as a writer writing poetry.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, the seventy-four-year-old said: "I think I've stopped writing plays now, but I haven't stopped writing poems."

"I think I've written twenty-nine plays. I think it's enough for me. I think I've found other forms now."[5]

He died when he was seventy-eight. Pinter's earliest influences were Yeats and Dylan Thomas. In his twenties he was very much taken by the poetry of WS Graham (with whom he became friends)—which he described as "ravished by language and the conundrum of language."[6] Later still, of all people, Philip Larkin's poetry called out to him:

In the 1960s, Philip Larkin was surprised that Pinter was an enthusiastic (and influential) advocate of his poetry. Since the plays were 'rather modern', he wrote to Pinter, 'I shouldn't have thought my grammar school Betjeman would have appealed to you.' Unlike Pinter [who went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (an institution he found intolerable)], Larkin had been to Oxford, where he learned that the mixing of Modern and Traditional was 'not done'.[7]

Pinter's output was not huge—his Collected Poems and Prose (from 1996)—only contains forty-six poems. The twenty-four-page War (2003) adds another handful to this list (the book consists of a speech, seven poems written immediately before the 2003 Iraq war, and one poem on the 1991 Gulf War) plus the Six Poems for A in 2007. So, less than a hundred still available in print although the complete total is probably not much higher. About the same as Beckett then. It is easy to see how the poetry of these two great writers could get passed over.

The question is: Just because Pinter is a great playwright does that automatically make him a great poet? The answer is obviously no but surely you would expect a talented wordsmith like Pinter to at least write decent poetry. Not everyone thinks so. Here is an excerpt from the 2004 TS Eliot lecture 'The Dark Art of Poetry' in which Don Paterson does not mince his words:

Don PatersonThe way forward, it seems to me, lies in the redefinition of ‘risk’ To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is, even if you are the world’s greatest living playwright. This poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverted sentimentalism—that’s to say by the time it reaches the page, it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it.[8]

Pinter's response? Surprisingly restrained:

True to form, the playwright reacted with some asperity to Paterson's analysis. "You want me to comment on that?" he said from his west London home. "My comment is: 'No comment.' "[9]

The poem I imagine Paterson is referring to is this one:

American Football

(A Reflection upon the Gulf War)

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

Okay, it's not pretty poem but the subject matter is not pretty. It was famously rejected for publication by the Independent, the Observer, the Guardian (on the grounds it was 'a family newspaper'), the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Andrew O'Hehir, in his review of Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, writes:

If the dense and difficult poems of his youth are often too clever by half, they nonetheless display a mind rich with images and a remarkable facility with language. Recent poems like ''American Football' or 'Death' have an almost electrical clarity and intensity.[10]

Michael Billington reproduces the poem in his book Life and Work of Harold Pinter and has this to say about it:

What Pinter is clearly doing in American Football is satirising, through language that is deliberately violent, obscene, sexual and celebratory, the military triumphalism that followed the Gulf War and, at the same time, counteracting the stage-managed euphemisms through which it was projected on television. […] Pinter's poem, by its exaggerated tone of jingoistic, anally obsessed bravado, reminds us of the weasel-words used to describe the war on television and of the fact that the clean, pure conflict which the majority of the American people backed at the time was one that existed only in their imagination. Behind the poem lies a controlled rage: that it was rejected, even by those who sympathised with its sentiments, offers melancholy proof that hypocrisy is not confined to governments and politicians.[11]

Michael Wood, however, in his review of Billington's book, said he thought the poem "truly dire"[12] and was not swayed by Billington's arguments:

Billington’s piety about Pinter is all but crippling, turning what might have been a portrait into a long obeisance.[13]

traditional-apple-pieHave you ever listened to American GI's talk? I imagine the same can be said for all soldiers. They are a foul-mouthed bunch. I found an old newspaper clipping from 1916 going on about the language used by the troops. Apparently Joan of Arc complained about how the English solders cussed back in the late middle ages. Of course we have no idea who the narrator is in this poem. I suspect the 'me' in the final line is Mom since we all know the slang expression, 'You kiss your momma with that mouth?' “We’re fighting for mom and apple pie.” That’s what the American GI’s often said when asked what they were fighting for during World War II. Either that or for God and country. And, of course, that really underlines the satire here.

Over on his site Nigeness, Nige finishes his remarks following Pinter's death with this final comment:

As for Pinter's 'poetry'—had it been written by anyone else, it would surely never have been taken seriously for a moment, would it?[14]

It's a fair question and I have to say that if anyone else had sent in that poem to those esteemed newspapers they wouldn't have even received any reply let alone the polite rejections Pinter mentions in his article 'Blowing up the Media' which first appeared in Index on Censorship and is reproduced on his website here.

Paterson is, of course, entitled to his opinion (as are all the others) but his real problem with Pinter's poetry stems from Paterson's definition of what poetry is. I don't support the school of thought that says, "It's a poem because I say so," but I do argue for a broad definition of poetry. I think poetry can, for example, be ugly and I see no fundamental difference between Pinter's 'American Football' and John Cooper Clarke's 'Evidently Chickentown'. The tone is different but the underlying message in John Cooper Clarke's poem is every bit as serious and heartfelt as is Pinter's. Now just try and imagine John Cooper Clarke reading 'American Football'. The singer-songwriter PJ Harvey cites Pinter's poetry as a source of inspiration:

I'm inspired by the other great writers I go back to and read again and again, and think how did they do that?"

Such as? She indicates a volume of Harold Pinter's poetry that she has brought with her. "Pinter leaves me speechless. Just unbelievable. A poem like 'American Football' or 'The Disappeared'.[15]

Do I like this poem? No, I can't say I do, but since when has a poem's likeability been the sole criterion by which we judge its quality? I'm not fond of its scatological language and yet, in my own anti-war poem I have a dog peeing at the base of a monument erected to commemorate fallen heroes so I can see exactly where Pinter is coming from here, besides, for some strange reason, other than 'pissed off', there aren't nearly as many vulgar expressions referencing urine as there are faeces.

In her biography on Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" and Hall's quote is often cited to describe the principle of freedom of speech, something about which Americans in particular are highly vocal. I'm not here to defend Pinter's politics but I am here to defend his poetic choices. And choice is the keyword here. Artists frequently simplify their style (take the naïve artists as an example) not because that's the best they can do but because that style is intended to have a certain effect. I believe the same is true in Pinter's choice to use coarse and frankly unpoetic language here.

In his essay 'Introduction to Pinter's Poetry' Jean-Marie Gleize says that for Pinter "especially in the last few years, a poem could be an in-your-face, very violent and heavily charged platform, and that a poem could work as a weapon, a weapon of attack, a combat weapon."[16] And if you have nothing left bar words and shit, well just ask the prisoners in the Maze prison in the mid-seventies how effective they can be.

Here's a selection of Pinter's war poetry opening with a powerful rendition of 'American Football' by Michael Sheen (which perfectly captures the "yee-haw apocalypse mandated by religious bigotry and bloodlust"[17] tone of poem) but hang on for Gina McKee's beautiful rendition of the (to my mind) rather Owen-esque 'Meeting' at the end:

Let's have a look at a very different poem now, a love poem, written the year before he wrote 'American Football' for his second wife Dame Antonia Fraser:

It Is Here

(For A)

What sound was that?

I turn away, into the shaking room.

What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
to turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?

It was the breath we took when we first met.

Listen. It is here.

They had been together about fifteen years when he wrote the poem and she admits that it is "nostalgic for when we first got together,"[18] a poem celebrating requited married love. The poem recalls the coup de foudre at Pinter's first meeting with his future wife and, of course, it will never mean as much to anyone else but that doesn't make it a bad poem; it is a personal poem and if anyone else gets anything out of it then bully for them.

It is interesting to hear him read the poem (which you can here (and then compare it to Antonia Fraser's interpretation)) because he doesn't read it like any love poem you have ever heard before. There's no sentimentalism here.

Here are three more poems written for his wife:

Here's what Pinter had to say about why he was a fan of Beckett's work:

The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy—he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not—he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful. (italics mine)[19]

One could say the same of Pinter. It doesn't matter what Pinter is talking about, be it love or war, he never has his hand over his heart; he's not that kind of writer. He was certainly an angry young man—he's sometimes linked with that group—and he died an angry old man but as his wife pointed out:

There was never any rage or anger of the 'Where's my shirt?' variety. Harold for all his combativeness is completely unexplosive.[20]

For me one of his most powerful poems is actually a found poem. It's called 'Death' and was written just after the registration of his father's death at Hove Town Hall in 1997:

(Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953)

Where was the body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the body was dead?

Did you wash the dead body?
Did you close both its eyes?
Did you bury the body?
Did you leave it abandoned?
Did you kiss the dead body?

Don't you find it strange that the love poem for his wife is written in the same interrogatory style? At first it's a son's lament over the loss of his father but later one he chose to end his booklet War with—for which he was awarded the Wilfred Owen Poetry Award—minus the subtitle and the date. Suddenly the poem takes on a whole different meaning.

But could Pinter write a real poem? Certainly his early derivate verse was but what about later on? Here's one from 2006 which looks fairly real to me if you don't mind overlooking the aside in the final stanza. Hell, it even (half-) rhymes:


There is a dark sound
Which grows on the hill
You turn from the light
Which lights the black wall.

Black shadows are running
Across the pink hill
They grin as they sweat
They beat the black bell.

You suck the wet light
Flooding the cell
And smell the lust of the lusty
Flicking its tail.

For the lust of the lusty
Throws a dark sound on the wall
And the lust of the lusty
– its sweet black will –
Is caressing you still.

Or what about this one from 1998 with its alliteration and internal rhymes?

The Disappeared

Lovers of light, the skulls,
The burnt skin, the white
Flash of the night,
The heat in the death of men.

The hamstring and the heart
Torn apart in a musical room,
Where children of the light
Know that their kingdom has come.

Surely this rhymer counts?


Laughter dies out but is never dead
Laughter lies out the back of its head
Laughter laughs at what is never said
It trills and squeals and swills in your head
It trills and squeals in the heads of the dead
And so all the lies remain laughingly spread
Sucked in by the laughter of the severed head
Sucked in by the mouths of the laughing dead [21]

And what about this frankly playful (and yet still very serious) one from the same year?


Are you ready to order?

No there is nothing to order
No I'm unable to order
No I'm a long way from order

And while there is everything,
And nothing, to order,
Order remains a tall order

And disorder feeds on the belly of order
And order requires the blood of disorder
And "freedom" and ordure and other disordures
Need the odour of order to sweeten their murders

Disorder a beggar in a darkened room
Order a banker and a castiron womb
Disorder an infant in a frozen home
Order a soldier in a poisoned tomb

Now this one sounds like Pinter. There is a common thread that runs between this poem, 'Death' and 'American Football' and Noel Malcolm hits the nail on the head in his review of War:

Pinter's poetry tends anyway to work by repetition and amplification, so such devices as this are well suited to it, generating incremental unease.[22]

Was Pinter a poet? In his obituary in The Guardian Michael Billington—who we have seen already was a fan—opens with:

PinterHarold Pinter, who has died at the age of 78, was the most influential, provocative and poetic dramatist of his generation. He enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter and director and was also, especially in recent years, a vigorous political polemicist campaigning against abuses of human rights. But it is for his plays that he will be best remembered and for his ability to create dramatic poetry out of everyday speech. (italics mine)[23]

The word 'poetry' or some variation thereof appears several other times in the article although he's certainly not the only one to use the adjective 'poetic' when talking about Pinter's plays. William Baxter writes:

I think his greatest poetry is in the drama. His plays are full of wonderful poetry whether it's topographical with long reflections on the landscapes of London, or whether it is reflections on the past or what may not have occurred between two human beings.[24]

A poet is not simply someone who writes poetry. Poetry is bigger than that and I do get frustrated by those who want to bottle it and market it. I am with Todd Swift who wrote to The Guardian in response to their article covering Don Paterson's speech and said (in part):

Paterson is wrong because he is so intent on limiting what a poem can and should be. In fact, it is when poetry (or music) is evolving and dynamically open to a rich variety of different voices that it thrives best. Political poetry has always been one part of poetry's role, and Pinter's work, although urgently blunt, is in that tradition.[25]

Will Pinter's poetry be remembered for as long as his plays? Doubtful but it's really only timeless writing that manages to survive. Topical writing and satire rarely lasts longer than the decade it was written in, certainly not the generation. A poem's greatness—its worthiness if you like—has little to do with whether or not the public take it to their heart—few of them could tell a good poem from a bad one but they know what they like, what moves them—and so I could see 'Death' lasting, maybe even 'It is Here'; there are certainly enough copies of the latter kicking around online and now I've added one more.

Pinter's verse is … about process; it's Pinter acting out, as it were, the contrary facts of being inside the situation, the context of the poem, the context of the politics. It is in essence dramatic and vatic; read it out loud, and work your way through the fissures to get at the tissue of the man. Pinter is never about epiphany and revelation, and much more about concealment. Despite the surface of the language, the poems are essentially about withholding something. The language of the poems can be thin and etiolated, straightforward too; like Carver's it can be artless, and where Carver derided cheap tricks, one can feel that Pinter, too, was after something direct, intimate and oral. He wanted to get under our skin as quickly as possible. To get in, and do the job.[26]

I've not touched on his poetry about cricket (which he adored) as I know nothing about the subject. "Cricket is the greatest thing God created on earth," Pinter once said. "Certainly greater than sex, although sex isn't too bad either."[27] I really don't get this "mini-masterpiece",[28] for example:

I saw Len Hutton in his prime
Another time
another time

I suppose it would help if I knew who Len Hutton was.

There is quite a bit of poetry on Pinter's website and I would recommend spending a little time reading through what's there; the poems themselves and the various analyses by others.

In 2005 Pinter contacted the actor Julian Sands and "asked him to read a few at a charity event (Pinter's throat cancer was by then too harold-pinter-stage-reviewadvanced for him to read them himself, but he worked with Mr Sands to get the right tempo and pitch)."[29]

“He was feeling his mortality very keenly and wanted these poems to reveal his interior,” remembers Sands. “He relished every moment with words, and wanted me to get it absolutely right. In spite of his illness, he had a burning energy. He was still on fire.”[30]

After Pinter's death Sands read the poems for a group of friends including his fellow actor John Malkovich who felt the tribute could be adapted for a wider audience and set about working with Sands to develop a show which, in 2011, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. He then took it all over the world. I guess there's a market for "doggerel".[31]

Let me conclude with a poem of my own. Oddly, in recent years—I say 'oddly' because this is not something I did as a young poet—I've written a number of poems in the voices of other poets (Larkin, Bukowski, Cummings, Jenny Joseph). Here is my poem in Pinter's voice:

After Pinter

I am a great man.
People depend on me to say great things.
They expect me to say great things.
I expect I am saying something great right now.
Things appear greater when I say them.

It is a terrible burden, of course,
a terrible responsibility, in fact,
to always have to say something great,
to be great to order; that said
people believe I am being great
even when I am being normal.
To them my normal is just great.
They need me to be great
ergo I am great.

“That was great,” they’ll say
and they’ll believe that to be true
but at the same time they’ll be thinking:
I thought great might be greater than that
but what do I know, he’s the great man, not me.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Finally, here are some links to Pinter's poetry online:


[1] His first publication was a poem 'Dawn' which appeared in the Hackney Downs School Magazine in the spring of 1947.

[2] Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter quoted on

[3] Research by Antonia Fraser revealed the legend to be apocryphal; three of Pinter's grandparents came from Poland and the fourth from Odessa, so the family was Ashkenazic.

[4] Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter quoted on

[5] 'Pinter to give up writing plays', BBC News, 28 February 2005

[6] From the preface to W.S. Graham The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters, edited by Michael and Margaret Snow quoted on

[7] Ian Smith ed., Pinter in the theatre, pp.17,18

[8] Don Paterson, 'The Dark Art of Poetry', The TS Eliot Lecture 2004, 9 November 2004

[9] Charlott Higgins, 'Pinter's poetry? Anyone can do it', The Guardian, 30 October 2004

[10] Andrew O'Hehir, The New York Times, 9 May 1999

[11] Michael Billington, The Life and Work of Harold Pinter quoted on

[12] Michael Wood, 'Nice Guy', London Review of Books, 14 November 1996

[13] Ibid

[14] Nige, 'Harold and Eartha', Nigeness, 29 December 2008

[15] PJ Harvey quoted in Dorian Lynskey, 'PJ Harvey: "I feel things deeply. I get angry, I shout at the TV, I feel sick"', The Observer, 24 April 2011

[16] Jean-Marie Gleize, 'Introduction to Pinter's Poetry' in Brigitte Gauthier ed., Viva Pinter: Harold Pinter's Spirit of Resistance, p.133

[17] David Wheatley, 'Dichtung und Wahrheit: Contemporary War and the Non-Combatant Poet' in Tim Kendall ed., The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, p.660

[18] From an audio recording of the poem on YouTube

[19] Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry Politics, p.58 quoted (in part) in Jean-Marie Gleize, 'Introduction to Pinter's Poetry' in Brigitte Gauthier ed., Viva Pinter: Harold Pinter's Spirit of Resistance, p.133

[20] Dame Antonia Fraser quoted in Penelo Prentice, The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic, p.ciii

[21] Several copies of this can be found online entitled 'Laughter' but it was actually called 'Body' when it first appeared in print in the Saturday Guardian on 25 November 2006. See William Baxter, Harold Pinter, p.137

[22] Noel Malcom, 'Stanzas and sound-bites', The Telegraph, 7 July 2003

[23] Michael Billington, 'Harold Pinter', The Guardian, 25 December 2008

[24] William Baxter, 'Pinter's poetry: a topological corpus' in Brigitte Gauthier ed., Viva Pinter: Harold Pinter's Spirit of Resistance, p.136

[25] Todd Swift quoted in 'Poets at war over Pinter and politics', The Guardian, 2 November 2004

[26] Christopher Hamilton-Emery, 'Pinter's poetry got under the skin', The Guardian, 30 December 2008

[27] Quoted in 'Harold Pinter's stroke of genius in the dullest passages of play', The Telegraph, 16 January 2009

[28] 'Harold Pinter and the art of cricket poetry', an extract from The Guardian's weekly e-mail The Spin, 1 November 2011

[29] 'The known and the unknown: A celebration of a bullish bard', The Economist, 20 August 2011

[30] Charlotte Stoudt, 'The poetry of Harold Pinter, in a benefit for the homeless', Los Angeles Times, 8 December 2009

[31] Andy Croft, 'Pure doggerel', The New Statesman, 6 December 2004

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