Leaving France

We had just come out from watching a movie. I was in Brittany, having left Paris that morning to attend the annual Noir Sur la Ville crime writing festival in the town of Lamballe. That afternoon I had met with a group of some fifty students at the Lycée Henri Avril who, as a part of their English course, had been reading one of my books. After an hour, talking, answering their questions, they clustered round in small groups to take selfies and went off happily. Later, there was a well-attended interview at the Bibliotheque and then, after an early communal supper, a slow walk through the town to the cinema where the writer Dominique Manotti was introducing J. C. Chador’s 2014 film. A Most Violent Year.

We were just emerging into the foyer after the screening when the first phone call came through: there had been three explosions in Paris. For five minutes, maybe ten, the small space was crowded with people anxiously talking into their mobile phones, while others, still unaware, chatted animatedly about what they had just seen on the screen.

It wasn’t until we arrived back at the hotel, some fifteen or so minutes later, staring up at the television, that the true horror of what had happened – was still happening – struck like a blow to the gut. Many of the people there, most perhaps, had friends in Paris, colleagues, and were anxious to establish that they were safe. Detail after detail slowly emerged. Not two separate attacks, but three, then more. Indiscriminate gunfire close to La Republique, near where I had dinner the night before. A hundred people held hostage. Pictures of ambulance men and police, running. Shaky images from peoples’ mobile phones. So many wounded, so many dead, the numbers rising.

Up in my room I watched the rolling news from the BBC, unable to take my eyes from the screen, the same pictures repeated again and again as if on a loop. Experts on terrorism; bystanders; talking heads. Around two, two-thirty, I made myself switch off and go to bed. By the time I awoke in the morning, the festival, like so many other public events all over France, had been cancelled. Some of the writers who had been staying in the hotel had already packed their bags and left, heading, a number of them, back to Paris; those that had been leaving for the festival from Paris that morning would not now come.

I had been due to return to Paris myself the following day, but it soon became clear that the events that had been scheduled – a radio interview, bookstore signings, a book launch party in a jazz club where I was to read with the pianist Pierre Christophe – would no longer take place. After discussions with the festival organiser and my editor from Rivages, who, thankfully, was there with me, it was agreed that the best thing would be for me to return home via the ferry from St. Malo the next morning.

Which left the rest of Saturday. And thanks largely to the many volunteers on whom the festival depends, what could have been a forlorn, embittered day turned out to be strangely enjoyable, if sad. We ate lunch together, as many as eighty of us, I suppose, seated at long tables in the municipal hall; drank too many espressos and talked in cafés in the afternoon; came together again in the evening for conversation, food and wine. Goodbyes.

By a little after nine the next morning, I was sitting on the upper deck of the St. Malo-Portsmouth ferry staring off across the waters towards the slowly disappearing town. Despite leaving friends behind, it felt right –  and there’s no denying this –  to be heading towards home and relative safety – safety for now.

What of the country I was leaving behind?

Natalie Nougayréde, The Guardian journalist based in Paris, had this to say on Monday:

France, like the rest of Europe, finds itself at a crossroads.

The danger is visible from statements made by the far right blaming Muslims, or war refugees streaming into Europe, for the Paris attacks. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, called for a closure of French borders immediately. She has her eye on regional elections next month.

France harbours the largest and possibly the best-finder extreme-right party in Europe, and it also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. It has lived through social tensions and crises foe identity, revolving mainly around France’s particular model of secularism, high unemployment, inequality and racial discrimination in the workforce, in housing and elsewhere. This makes it essential for the right messages to be sent out by the government at such a crucial moment.

Hollande will address both chambers of parliament tomorrow. Will he find the words needed to consolidate a national sense of togetherness beyond cultural, social and religious fractures?

On the later evidence, it seems not. In January, after the Charlie Hedbo shootings, Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Vallis, speaking of the reasons why young French Muslims might be open to radicalisation, talked of the “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” with which they were confronted. Now, any such considerations have been pushed into the background. Ramp up the bombing. Home and away, total war. But isn’t that what Isis wants? What they are clamouring for? And aren’t wars on terrorism, history suggests, prone to fail if war is all there is?

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Tom Raworth & Others

Foolish it might have been to take my rucksack along to the recent Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall, but how else was I going to take my trusty and, by now, well marked up copy of Out of Silence needed for my 11.00am reading, not to mention a bottle of water, box of Strepsils, sports pages of The Guardian, et cetera? As soon as I saw the number of stalls packed into the room, each of them packed with tempting publications, I made a quick promise to myself that, rucksack or no rucksack, I would buy three books and no more.

The first was easy. Across the aisle from my own publisher, Smith/Doorstop, was (were?)Nottingham’s own Mother’s Milk Books [aim: to celebrate femininity and empathy through images and words, with a view to normalising breastfeeding], one of whose authors, Ana Salote, I met earlier this year at Lowdham Book Festival and shared a pleasant train journey with on the way home, so her book, Oy Yew, was my number one.

Soon after that, I spied poet/publisher Tamar Yoseloff at the table consigned to Hercules Editions, the small press she runs with designer Vici MacDonald. Their books are beautifully designed limited editions, perfectly marrying images and words, and the only one I didn’t already have a copy of was right there in front of me – Ormonde, by Hannah Lowe, which documents the story of the ship which, in 1947, and thus pre-Windrush, brought her father and other Jamaican immigrants to this country.

Tammy, of course, I had first met with my publisher’s hat on, when Slow Dancer Press published her 1994 chapbook, Fun House, and then, in 1998, her collection, Sweetheart. [Love that Jamie Keenan designed cover!] Her New & Selected Poems, A Formula for Night, will be published by Seren Books later this month.

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But on to number three. And yet again it was remarkably easy. The minute I drew level with the Carcanet Press table, my eyes were drawn to the nicely quirky cover of Tom Raworth’s As When, a fat and judicious selection ranging from his first collection, The Relation Ship, published by Cape Goliard in 1966 to Structure from Motion, published by Edge Books earlier this year. 139 poems, 248 pages, £14.99 – do the maths. A bargain, right. A bargain and a delight.

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When I got home, I looked for my original copy of The Relation Ship and there it was. Creased and battered, read and reread. Favourites asterisked or underlined. I imagine I bought it in Nottingham in 1975, either there or at the much-lamented Compendium in Camden, round about the same time that I bought Lee Harwood’s The White Room.

It was at a reading for Lee Harwood, held at the Redroaster Coffee House in Brighton last month, that I met Tom Raworth for perhaps the second or third time. I’d heard he’d not been all that well, and, in truth, he approached the stage with care, but once behind the microphone he roared like a mighty lion. The Raworth roar, once heard not easily forgotten. Like the poems.

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Photo of Tom Raworth: Andrew King andrewkingphotography.co.uk

 

The Rise & Rise of Simon Armitage

 

 

1987 it would have been. Peter Sansom – he of Smith/Doorstop and the Poetry Business – had invited me up to Huddersfield to do a reading at the library. This back in the day when Huddersfield was being touted – largely thanks to Peter and a few other poetry enthusiasts and entrepreneurs like him, Geoff Hattersley for one, Keith Jafrate for another – as the Poetry Capital of England. And it did seem, to amend something that gets said nowadays about Nottingham, most recently by the Guardian, as if 99% of Huddersfield were poets or something: Heather Hand, Janet Fisher, Milner Place, Stephanie Bowgett – the list, I’m sure, goes on, but the memory fails.

Anyway, there I am, up in Huddersfield, there’s a decent crowd and, probably because I’ve travelled the furthest (all the way from Nottingham) I’m set to read last. [Top of the bill, Ma! as James Cagney might have said, had he been a poet, had he come from Huddersfield, or even, I suppose, ever come to it – but in the way of poets everywhere, I digress.]

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Peter introduces me to the two young men (even in those days, most other poets I met seemed young, Huddersfield poets especially) who are going to read before me, Craig Smith [he of the pretty wonderful A Quick Word With A Rock and Roll Late Starter (The Rue Bella, 2003)] and Simon Armitage. I think I might have published at least one of Simon’s poems in Slow Dancer magazine by then, but we’d never met.

Listening to him read that evening, I was struck by the way that both the content of the poems – their narrative, their subject – most often taken from the commonplace – had been expressed in the language of the everyday (heightened sometimes, while pretending not to be) and reimagined in such a way as to set it in a different light. And then there was the voice – not just the light Northern accent, though that’s part of it – the voice as in the way he read, but also in the way the poems came from and were so clearly a part of him.

There was one poem that struck me particularly, about his father I think– something to do with him setting off to, or returning from, work? – and after the reading I asked Simon if I could publish it in Slow Dancer. Sorry, he said, but it’s just been accepted by the TLS. [The Times Literary Supplement, but then you knew that.]

I thought then, this lad’s on the way. And he was. There had already been a couple of small pamphlet collections, Human Geography from Smith/Doorstop in 1986 and The Distance Between Stars from The Wide Skirt in 1987. My Slow Dancer Press stepped in with The Walking Horses in 1988 (the same year Simon won an Eric Gregory Award) and Around Robinson in 1990, but by then there’d been a first book-length collection, Zoom!, from Bloodaxe, which was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and by 1992 he’d moved on to Faber and Faber with Kid and the rest, as they say …

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As anyone who’s followed Simon’s career will know, he’s by no means restricted himself to poetry: there’ve been translations, adaptations, plays, television programmes, films, books of reminiscence, books about music, about long-distance walking – so many varied things, but the poetry has remained, always, at the heart of it, which is why – one of the reasons why – I was so delighted when it was announced that he has been elected Oxford University Professor of Poetry.

What next? Poet Laureate to succeed Carol Ann Duffy? You read it here first.

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Barnes on Art

I didn’t realise – couldn’t yet see – how in all the arts there are usually two things going on at the same time: the desire to make it new, and a continuing conversation with the past. All the great innovators look to previous innovators, to the ones who gave them permission to go and do otherwise, and painted homages got predecessors are a frequent trope.

Julian Barnes: Guardian Review 02.05.15