Poetry

Sun, sex and acid: Thom Gunn in California

San Francisco is a fantastic place… it’s terribly sunny… I am having a splendid hedonistic time here… I find myself continually going to marvellous orgies where I meet unbelievably sexy people… I dropped acid for Christmas Day… had sex for SIX HOURS… Then to New York, which I’ve never enjoyed so much… Some of the people I met introduced me to cocaine (one of the people was a singer for a pop group called Looking Glass), and that is a fine drug… Life is such fun here… I had an extraordinary three-way with two guys I met in a bar… I am really pretty happy… I’ve been doing a lot

My clairvoyant GP

‘Willie or bum?’ I said to Catriona on the motorway. Everything in my recent medical career has been introduced via the former: cameras, cutters, stents. I naturally assumed it would be the same choice of pathways for exploring and snipping off three pieces of my liver. At the wheel, Catriona laughed at my idiocy and explained where my liver was and that there was not a pathway from it to either of those entrances. ‘They’ll go straight in through the side with a needle,’ she said. ‘Ow,’ I said. While I undressed in front of her, the admissions nurse scanned my written forms. ‘Anglais? I only take cash,’ she said,

Two of a kind: Monica Jones proved Philip Larkin’s equal for racism and misogyny

By the time Philip Larkin died in 1985, he’d long since achieved national treasure status: his poems were critically admired as well as widely read; his reticence (‘the Hermit of Hull’) was a matter of affectionate respect; and his cantankerous published remarks about ‘difficulties with girls’, children, left-wing politics, and ‘abroad’ were generally embraced as proof of valiant individualism — or possibly a grouchy kind of joke. Thirty-five years later, after the publication of biographies and his previously private correspondence, his reputation is not so much changed as turned on its head: the outbursts of racism and misogyny that are splattered through his letters have for many readers cast a

My favourite failed podcasts

The promise of the internet was supposed to be thus: you could be your own bizarre, inappropriate self, and you would find a community of the likewise bizarre and inappropriate. You put yourself out there, and you will find what you consider unique or intolerable to be mundane and perfectly within the bounds of acceptable behaviour. But look, some of us went online, we said our things, and the internet responded: what the hell is your problem, truly why would you say something like that? There are a lot of reasons online projects fail, from lack of funds to real life intruding on your time to realising you just don’t

Rescuing Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her wax-doll image

‘Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?’ asks the speaker in Robert Browning’s poem ‘Memorabilia’ — a line which recognises how easy it is to misread a writer once they’ve passed into a hazy afterlife of fame, neglect or simple misunderstanding. Yet few of Browning’s contemporaries are as hard to see plain as his own wife: the poet who was known to her family as Ba, signed herself EBB, and published a number of popular works under her married name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. During her lifetime she was one of the most admired poets of the age; a framed portrait of her hung in the bedroom of Emily Dickinson,

Alfred Brendel the Dadaist

How many people are celebrating the fact that, last week, one of Europe’s most inspired writers about music, modern art and aesthetics celebrated his 90th birthday? The answer is relatively few, which might seem surprising. He is a world-renowned authority on the grotesque and the absurd — territory through which he darts mischievously in his poems, originally composed in his native German. But you have to turn to his essays written in English to experience his refined sarcasm, which is either delicious or mortifying, depending on whether you feel incriminated by his strictures against intellectual laziness. He is quirky and rigorous — a combination associated with his beloved Dada, a

My fateful appearance at the Bank of England’s Christmas drinks

Tidings of comfort as the vaccination programme advances, but shortage of joy. That’s my summary of a season in which there’s no Spectator Christmas bash for the first time in my 29 years on the magazine; in which my panto-dame ball gown hangs forlornly as a decoration in the foyer of the theatre where social distancing has made it impossible for us to mount a show; and in which I can’t even offer my customary restaurant tips, because there have been so few opportunities to eat out anywhere and, apart from a brief French escape in July, no chance at all to travel abroad. Nevertheless I count my blessings, the

What has Ted Hughes’s ancestor got to do with his poetry?

Scandalously, we never studied Ted Hughes at school. As the Poet Laureate is arguably the finest British poet of the 20th century this would be a scandal wherever I attended (‘studied’ would be pushing it) but I attended Calder High in Ted’s home town of Mytholmroyd. Though the grand total of my published poems stands at seven, we share connections, Ted and I. When my first novel was published — set in a fictionalised version of the Calder Valley — I was a guest of the Ted Hughes Festival. As a teenager in the 1980s, I tended Sylvia Plath’s grave. By then Ted was already a bogeyman for some of the area’s

Churches are more Covid-secure than trains or takeaways

Monday night’s murderous gunman in Vienna is officially described as ‘Islamist’. Brahim Aioussaoi, the man accused of murdering worshippers in a Nice cathedral last week, arrived (reported the BBC) with ‘three knives, two phones and one Quran’. These would seem to be the basic toolkit required. A friend who lives in southern France tells me that although the latest lockdown measures prevent church services being held, so serious is the terrorist threat to churches that many are guarded by police. So it seems natural that President Macron of France warns of the danger to French Catholics and speaks of ‘Islamist terrorist folly’. Each of his three chosen words rings true,

A beautiful radio adaptation: Radio 4’s The Housing Lark reviewed

Nineteen fifty-six: the Suez crisis, the first Tesco, Jim Laker takes 19 wickets in a match. But also: Trinidadian pianist Winifred Atwell becomes the first black woman to have a UK number one with ‘The Poor People of Paris’; Kenneth Tynan announces a playwriting competition in the Observer, which is won by the Trinidadian dramatist Errol John, and a third Trinidadian, Sam Selvon, publishes his most enduring novel, The Lonely Londoners. He was photographed the same year by Ida Kerr, looking up out of shot past a crooked nose, a frown half creasing his forehead as a smile plays around the corners of his mouth. Selvon’s novels are fatalistic comedies,

The death of the Southbank Centre

The one thing everyone agrees is that the Southbank Centre is in deep trouble. In May, the institution made an unusually public plea for government help. Management predicted the best-case scenario was ending the financial year with a £5 million loss, having exhausted all reserves, used the £4 million received from the furlough scheme and having gobbled up the remainder of its Arts Council grant. All the while, with the exception of the Hayward Gallery, the 21-acre site on London’s Thameside, incorporating both the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, remains closed. It was pitiful news, but there was worse to come. With no concerts, performances, talks or

Why poetry matters

Juan Carlos, ex-King of Spain, behaved foolishly in relation to money and sex, and so his decision to leave Spain is sad, but justified. That seems to be the view of most moderate people outside Spain who are not ill-disposed to the monarchy. But it is it right? Certainly Juan Carlos’s foolishness was real, but his imposed exile (it is not really voluntary) to the Dominican Republic is not a punishment for a crime: there has never been any legal process. It is a partisan political act which is bad for the unity of Spain. Juan Carlos’s exile was forced on the current King, his son Felipe VI, by a

To understand the past, you need to inhabit it for a while

‘It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet; Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit. The glass is falling by the hour, the glass will fall forever, But if you break the bloody glass, you won’t hold up the weather.’ The first poem I ever heard was ‘Eenie, meenie, minie moe, catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go’, etc. I found it mystifying. How would one catch a tiger by its toe? And do tigers ‘holler’? ‘There is something about this poem they’re not telling me,’ I thought, full of worry, my nappy beginning to chafe.

From blue to pink: Looking for Eliza, by Leaf Arbuthnot, reviewed

On the way back from my daily dawn march in the park, I often pass my neighbour, a distinguished gentleman in his late eighties, taking the air on his doorstep. I stand behind the area railings and shout: ‘How are you?’ And he shouts back: ‘Bored!’ At least not lonely. His sixtysomething son is with him. But how solitary these lockdown weeks have been for the widow and the widower, the singleton and the bachelor. Leaf Arbuthnot, a freelance journalist, could not have picked an apter time to publish her first novel Looking for Eliza, a redemptive story about grief, isolation and why everybody needs good neighbours. Its 75-year-old heroine

The poetry of ‘Ambulances’

The visible face of this virus, for most of us, is the ambulances. All else that we see – empty streets, spaced out queues, face masks, rainbows in windows – is secondary. Only the ambulances tell of the disease itself. They are the eerily siren-less blue flashing tips of the iceberg. So I am surprised that Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Ambulances’ has not, as far as I know, been identified as the text of the moment. I suppose it’s bleaker than one might like – uplifting poems are generally preferred at such a time. In fact I saw that another Larkin poem, ‘The Mower’ has been placed on a list of

From Middlemarch to Mickey Mouse: a short history of The Spectator’s books and arts pages

The old masters: how well they understood. John Betjeman’s architecture column ran for just over three years in the mid-1950s. Yet during that short run he experienced the moment that comes, sooner or later, to every regular writer in The Spectator’s arts pages. ‘It is maddening the way people corner one and make one discuss politics at the moment,’ he wrote on 23 November 1956, clearly as bored of the Suez crisis as the rest of us were, until recently, by Brexit: Because I write in this paper, people assume that I share its Editor’s views about Suez… But I don’t know what the views of this paper about Suez

The best Christmas gift you can give yourself is to learn some poetry by heart

Every Christmas I find I am living in the past. I blame my father. He was born in 1910 — before radio, before TV, before cinema had sound, so he and his siblings made their own entertainment at Christmas. He brought up his children to do the same, which is why my unfortunate offspring have a Christmas that’s essentially a century out of date. There are three elements at its heart: board games that end in rows, parlour games that end in tears, and party pieces performed around the Christmas tree. I owe my very existence to my father’s love of board games. As a boy, his favourite was a

Remembering the genius of Clive James

‘Clive James Stirs.’ That was the standard subject line for the emails I used to get from the great Australian polymath. I liked it. It cast him, I thought, as a sort of barnacled kraken — still hanging in there, occasionally roused to action. He was usually submitting a new poem. For a while, after he first announced his illness and his poem ‘Japanese Maple’ had gone viral thanks to a tweet from Mia Farrow (Clive found this funny, and was pleased), there was a faintly ghoulish cachet in the thought that we might be the publishers of Clive’s last poem. But of course, he didn’t die — and the

‘Instapoetry’ may be popular, but most of it is terrible

Poetry is on a hot streak. Last year, sales in the UK topped £12 million for the first time — a rise of more than 10 per cent for the second year running. According to Parisa Ebrahimi, the poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, one reason for the trend is that poetry is no longer the domain of the white male. This may be true, but how has it happened? Part of the answer is Instagram. Designed as a social network for sharing photos, recently the app has been adopted and adapted by writers — few of them white, many of them women — who, rather than selfies and sunsets,

The many faces of William ‘Slasher’ Blake

‘Imagination is my world.’ So wrote William Blake. His was a world of ‘historical inventions’. Nelson and Lucifer, Pitt and the Great Red Dragon, chimney sweeps and cherubim, the Surrey Hills and Jerusalem in ruins, the alms houses of Mile End and the vast abyss of Satan’s bosom.  He saw the fires of the Gordon Riots and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. His subjects were Milton and Merlin, Dante and Job, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and the Book of Revelation. He held infinity in the palm of his hand, yet worked through the night to write and grave all that was on his mind. ‘I have