Saturday, 4 July 2015

heavy rain, mst, kellogg, keble 30th, poem, marina warner's what is a story on radio 4, simon armitage, mammoth whisky event

















Heavy rain last night, which the garden and allotment needed desperately. Everything is growing so slowly and is struggling.

There was thunder and dramatic lightening too, according to J, but I missed it.

Took the photo above along Calcroft Lane - it shows the curve of the road up to the bridge over the old railway track.

Lots of library work and assignment marking this past week. Also prepared for the Master of Studies (MSt) in Creative Writing Guided Retreat, which starts tomorrow.

This afternoon, there's a party to celebrate Kellogg College's 25th anniversary, together with both the MSt's and the Kellogg College Centre for Creative Writing's tenth. Then, somewhat frighteningly, it's our year group's summer dinner at Keble - thirty years since we matriculated.

As it's something of an MSt weekend, here are links to the MSt blog and the YouTube video.

Also, talking of the MSt, one of my students has a character who scribbles poems on handy pieces of paper, so he is reminded of an image or a feeling. Inspired by this, perhaps, I tapped these lines into my smartphone the other day, while walking into work along the Oxford canal:

I turn and look back along the towpath.
The band of shade beneath the mays
Seems narrow now.
Yet when I walked through it,
It lasted for ages and the
Cool was so welcome.

--

When I got back from cycling this morning, there was an advert for what sounds a really exciting series of short programmes about story telling presented by Marina Warner, called What is a Story? The programmes - ten of them - go out on Radio 4 at 1.45 pm daily from Monday 6th July.

Finally, I was pleased that Simon Armitage was elected Oxford Professor of Poetry - though the online voting system wasn't nearly as fun as going along to the Divinity School, as you used to do. For what it's worth, here is a review of his first novel, Little Green Man, which I wrote back in August 2011 for the Financial Times:

Boys Just Want to Have Fun, Financial Times, 11th August 2001

LITTLE GREEN MAN by Simon Armitage Viking £12.99, 246 pages

Simon Armitage's poems combine the sort of technical know-how that dazzles fellow poets and a down-to-earth way with language which endears him to a wide readership. While he is drawn to stories about universal experience which he can transform with a sideways look and his wry sense of humour, he is also insightful about the back streets of psychological life - a result, perhaps, of his former career as a probation officer.

Such qualities stand him in good stead in his debut novel. His narrator is Barney, a 35-year-old odd-job man who lives on the edge of a "small, northern town, with the moors up above" in Armitage's native West Yorkshire. At first it seems as if Barney is going to be one of those licensed chauvinists who are a staple of contemporary male fiction. There is the fascination with the paraphernalia of childhood. There is football, of course. Even occasional lists of 1970s TV shows and long-lost toys.

But then the story changes direction. Barney phones up four school friends, nicknamed Stubbs, Tony Football, Pompus and Winkie, and suggests a reunion. He is ostensibly making up a team for five-a-side football but after the first match he tells them that he has retrieved the little green man - a jade statue which had totemic significance for them 20 years before - from an old trunk. He also produces an expert valuation of £750,000. The five are soon involved in an adult version of their boyhood do-or-dare game, with the statue as the prize. Barney believes his intellect is superior and that the others relate to him like ping-pong balls in a molecular model, "quivering and tense around one centre of gravity".

To begin with the dares are trivial (stealing £10-worth of sweets and phonecards; having a tattoo done). Armitage skilfully draws us into the situation with knowing winks and by keeping it within the bounds of credibility until he is sure we are inside his trap and he can spring the gate. As Barney struggles to keep control of the game, the men regress to their boyhood cruelties and prejudices, fuelled by greed: an animal is sacrificed; sexual secrets are dragged out into the open and used to humiliate; ultimately there is the threat of a murder.

Such a relentless, forensic analysis of the emotions underlying male behaviour would, on its own, be difficult to stomach, but Armitage deepens the narrative by exploring Barney's other relationships. Barney tells us about his near-psychopathic older brother, Troy, whose influence is one of the reasons he feels compelled to manipulate people, as a way of bolstering his self-esteem. We begin to see through the confident image Barney has tried to project when, between dares, he visits his ex-wife Kim and their autistic son Travis. Barney eventually takes faltering steps towards an understanding of himself, but the poignant irony of the episodes when he is with Travis - who fears the world, yet can appear blithely fearless of breaking its conventions - is the metaphorical parallel between their predicaments.

It is only at the close of the book that Armitage's judgment goes a little askew. That tentatively progressing Barney should suddenly leap forward for the sake of a redemptive ending seems uncharacteristically clumsy. Yet overall this novel more than lives up to the promise of the poet's gifts and its triumph is that he makes an unappealing character intriguing, humane and accessible.

Frank Egerton.

[As an aside, I think I'm right in saying that after typing this article's last full stop I took a taxi to Philip Pullman's house for a wonderful Writers in Oxford whisky tasting event and talk led by the late Michael Jackson, the fascinating beer and whisky writer. A mammoth evening, whenever it was!]

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