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Aberfan: the sorrow and anger of fifty years

‘In that silence…’ A powerful and moving commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, from That’s How the Light Gets In.

That's How The Light Gets In

Fifty years ago today, on 21 October 1966, at 9.15 in the morning, the children of Pantglas Junior School had just returned from morning assembly to sit at their desks in their classrooms when spoil tip no. 7 tore down the mountainside, taking just five minutes to smash through houses and the school, burying everything in its path in a sea of thick, black mud. By that evening, as miners from the nearby pits toiled under arc lights, scrabbling with their bare hands at the slurry, the village of Aberfan knew that 187 souls were lost, 116 of them children. A generation had been  wiped out.

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Tears of Rage


I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately.  Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.

Do his lyrics constitute poetry?  I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art.  I don’t think there is any absolute answer.

Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung.  On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them.  To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are.  The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not  lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems.  R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on.  On the page though, all that is lost.

So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature?  Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.

Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs.  Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse.  Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition.  Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’,  the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’,  the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’…  Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.


Take ‘Hollis Brown’.  The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness

You looked for work and money

And you walked a rugged mile

You looked for work and money

And you walked a rugged mile

This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that.  Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.

Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:

Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….

 On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.

He’s taught in his school

From the start by the rule

That the laws are with him

To protect his white skin

To keep up his hate

So he never thinks straight

‘Bout the shape that he’s in

But it ain’t him to blame

He’s only a pawn in their game


The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’.  And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game.  I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.

Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel

To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level

And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,

Stared at the person who killed for no reason

Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning

And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,

William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…

Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears

Bury the rag deep in your face

For now’s the time for your tears

If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.

You’re right from your side

I’m right from mine

We’re both just too many mornings

And a thousand miles behind

which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’

Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles

That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties.  And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:

I aint saying you treated me unkind

You could have done better but I don’t mind

You just kinda wasted my precious time

But don’t think twice, it’s all right


A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.

We carried you in our arms

On Independence Day,

And now you’d throw us all aside

And put us on our way.

Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun

Would treat a father so,

To wait  upon him hand and foot

And always tell him, ‘No’?

Tears of rage, tears of grief,

Why must I always be the thief?

Come to me now, you know

We’re so alone

And life is brief


Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages,  suggests a link to King Lear:

Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.

and to the Vietnam war:

In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that

in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.

So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever.  Seriously?  The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really argue that Dylan has done that?  His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’  name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.

And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:

1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.

 Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand?  In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘.  He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that.  Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.

As is the case right now.  From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words.  An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.

So who knows?  And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?

Bob Dylan and Barbara Allen

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Citizen of the World


According to our Prime Minister,

if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

The examples she gives are of people who regard themselves as above the obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work, who identify themselves with ‘international elites’ rather than with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.’  She talks of ‘the spirit of citizenship’.

Prime Minister : You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Those of us who identify ourselves as citizens of the world do, indeed, ‘respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work’.   But we see those bonds and obligations as extending beyond the people who live around us, work for us, buy the goods and services we sell.

As a citizen of the UK, I honour my commitments and responsibilities to the country of my birth, the country where I have spent most of my life, where I have worked, paid taxes, and raised a family.  But I also believe that:

In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems.

And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen.

I spent some of my childhood years in a newly independent West African nation.  My parents flew out to Ghana in 1960, with three children under four years old. My father taught Physics and Mathematics to undergraduates at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi.  He wrote a textbook for use in schools, recognising that those imported from the UK not only assumed resources far beyond the means of Ghanaian schools, but also assumed cultural references which would make no sense to Ghanaian children.  He went on to train teachers in the north of Nigeria.  And in his retirement, after years doing the same at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), he set up an organisation to link retired educators with projects in developing countries, sending them out to work with local teachers to use their lifetimes of expertise where it was most needed, in countries such as Paraguay, Kosovo, Iraq, Liberia, India and Chad.

The country of my parents who instilled in me a sense of public service and of public servants everywhere who want to give something back.

So what was instilled in me by my parents was not only a sense of public service, but the belief that that does not stop at our coastline, that it’s not just ‘the people down the road’, but the people across the oceans who matter.

It’s not about ‘international elites’, it’s about refugees, about people who are persecuted because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, about people who starve because the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed and because their own and other governments do not have the will to act, about people…  About people.

Global citizenship does not mean what Teresa May thinks (or at least says) it means.

But there’s another troubling undertone here.

‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere … the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere’

‘International elites’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who owe no loyalty to the countries in which they may live and work.  I am not suggesting for a moment that Teresa May is deliberately echoing Adolf Hitler’s 1933 speech, any more than Amber Rudd’s proposal to require firms to list all of their foreign workers is consciously preparing the ground for yellow stars or their equivalent.


10-points-of-fascist-policy-spread-4But the echoes are worrying.  With the Brexit vote having been interpreted by the government primarily as a vote about immigration, and by racist bigots as a vote against foreigners of all kinds, with the plans to tighten even further the tests which would allow British businesses to employ people from overseas, and those which allow students to come from overseas to study here…

It seems that we are prepared to put into jeopardy our health services and the many other businesses and services which rely on overseas expertise, to put into jeopardy our economy, which gains so much from international students paying £20k a year in fees alone to study here, to put into jeopardy our research culture which thrives on the free movement of academics, all to reduce the net migration total.

Teresa May referred to the UK’s remarkable number of Nobel Laureates.  But one of this year’s prize winners, Sir Fraser Stoddart, has reminded us that ‘recruiting from a wider pool and bringing in talent from abroad raises everyone’s standard’.

“When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they’re serious about science,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”

Sir Martin Rees, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, and the Astronomer Royal, warns:

“The UK scientific scene is now much stronger than it was [in the 1980s] – thanks in part of the strengthening of science on mainland Europe. But there is a serious risk, aggravated by the tone of Amber Rudd’s deplorable speech on Tuesday, that there will be a renewed surge of defections, weakening UK science and causing us to fail to recoup our investments over the last 20 years.”

Amber Rudd spoke of the resident labour market test, which determines whether an organisation can recruit outside the UK (and, at present, EU).

The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.

But it’s become a tick box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.

It’s not fair on companies doing the right thing. So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.

Most people hearing this will not know how onerous it already is to appoint someone from outside the UK/EU, how many hoops the employer will have to jump through to satisfy the requirements for a Tier 2 visa to be issued, and how many hoops the applicant will have to jump through.  Amber Rudd knows this perfectly well, as do many in her audience.  But none of that really matters – what it’s about is meeting this arbritrary net migration target, by whatever means.

She also tackled the issue of international students:

The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. … And foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.

Her first point is moot.  An international student can apply to stay on after their studies are complete under a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa – if they have access to at least £50k investment funds to set up or run a UK business.  Or, they may apply for a Tier 2 visa, if they have been offered a job by a licensed UK employer, and if they can rack up 70 points under the points based system (yes, we do have a points based system!), which requires them, amongst other things, to have English language qualifications at a suitable level, and sufficient funds in their personal bank account.  And all overseas students have to meet English language proficiency requirements at a level set by their institution.

But important as it is to call her out on the inaccuracies in her statement, the really important thing is what underlies it.  The assumption that students are flooding here, unable to speak the language, getting favourable treatment post-study, bringing their entire extended families with them – that they are a burden and a problem.


To quote Rudd:

try and stand up for a multiracial Britain and you are labelled part of the liberal elite; point out the £20 billion net contribution from immigrants over a decade and you are told you are not listening to the people; oppose hate crime and you are mocked for political correctness. It is easier to vilify foreigners in the new Britain than it is to espouse European values.

OK, not that Rudd.  Her brother, in fact, who has founded an organisation called Open Britain, a place for those who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling and campaigning for Britain to be open and inclusive, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world.

For Teresa May and Amber Rudd and so many in the Tory Party (and elsewhere) EU migrants are a problem.  Overseas workers and students are a problem.  Refugees are a problem.  Foreigners are a problem.

And the problem can be solved by ending free movement of EU citizens, if need be losing out on beneficial trade deals as a quid pro quo, by tightening up still further on the freedom of employers to bring in the skills and expertise they need to contribute to our economy and to our academic research, by reducing the numbers of students paying substantial fees and contributing to the local economy whilst acquiring skills and qualifications which might be useful both here and in their home country.

The problem can be solved by stating repeatedly that we are doing ‘everything we can’ (whilst doing nothing at all) to bring unaccompanied child refugees who have the right to come to Britain, out of the camp at Calais – due to be demolished shortly – and to safety with family here.


Meanwhile the children remain in the squalor and misery of the camps, prey to traffickers and abusers, desperate enough to risk and lose their lives in attempts to board lorries crossing the Channel.  Every day they remain puts them at greater risk of harm, and increases their trauma.  But refugees – even these children – are a problem, and therefore we stall and hedge and do nothing.

And whilst we make that arbitrary division between those who live and work here holding a British passport and those who live and work here holding EU or overseas passports, we are about to guarantee for Britons who have settled overseas permanently a “vote for life” in British general elections…

The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used in a way that perhaps feeds into Teresa May’s characterisation, of someone who is part of ‘a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens’”.

But that’s a distortion of what it means.

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

A global or world citizen places their shared humanity above nationalistic or local identities.   They recognise our interconnectedness, and that the problems and threats we face – climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples through war and famine – cannot be solved other than by nations working together and that our response is hindered rather than helped by borders and barriers. Global citizenship only comes into conflict with national and local identities, and with the obligations and responsibilities of national citizenship, if that nation demands of its citizens allegiance to values which are inhumane.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is about as cosmopolitan as anyone could be.  His mother was English (daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps), his father Ghanaian.  He was educated in Ghana and the UK, and taught in Germany, Ghana, South Africa and France as well as in the US.  His family and that of his husband, Henry Finder, is scattered across four continents.


He defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’ asserting that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.”

The foreignness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers, these things are real enough, but Appiah suggests that intellectuals and leaders, on the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated their significance. He scrutinizes the treacly celebration of “diversity,” the hushed invocations of the “Other,” and the brow-furrowing talk of “difference.” In developing a cosmopolitanism for our times, he defends a vision of art and literature as a common human possession, distinguishes the global claims of cosmopolitanism from those of its fundamentalist enemies, and explores what we do, and do not, owe to strangers. This deeply humane account will make it harder for us to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest, between locals and moderns, between Us and Them.

That the language around immigration is becoming ever more toxic is recognised across the political spectrum.  What might have been unsurprising in a UKIP manifesto is now mainstream Tory policy, and whilst many in Labour have been quick and vigorous in opposition, the Party’s Press Office inexplicably seemed to think that pointing out the government’s failure to meet its targets in reducing net migration was the best response.

More hopefully, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru were unequivocal:

The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe… and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.

This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in. We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question, or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’. Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23rd, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age. At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to enflame those same things.

It’s perilously easy to despair.  But if we do, if we let the seemingly endless tide of sickening rhetoric and bad news overwhelm us and reduce us to silence and inaction, those who will suffer will be those who are already vulnerable, those who are already being told to ‘go home’, facing abuse and discrimination, those who are desperately trying to reach safety and encountering the impermeable indifference of bureaucracy, those who have made their lives and careers here and now feel unwelcome.

‘There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.’

No pasaran.






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Butor in Manchester


Since the announcement of Michel Butor’s death a few days ago, obituaries, hommages, appreciations and recollections have appeared in the quality press across Europe .  But not here in the UK.  Not a word.

It wasn’t always thus.  In 1956, Butor’s second novel, L’Emploi du temps, was published, with an English translation appearing in 1960 (Passing Time).  The setting was immediately recognisable to British readers – a northern English city, rain drenched and fog bound, grimy  and sooty, where you can’t get a drink until evening, and you can’t get a decent meal anywhere, at any time.

This was Manchester, where Butor, fresh from teaching in Egypt and ‘inundated with sun’, came for a two-year stint as a lecteur at the University.  Manchester, masquerading as Bleston, where Revel, a young Frenchman, came for a one year contract translating documents for a shipping company.

It’s not the city’s landmarks that make it so recognisable.  Butor keeps some features but plays fast and loose with their relative positions, adds a second Cathedral, and configures the railway stations in a kind of noose around the city centre.  He transforms Belle Vue into Plaisance Gardens. His street names mingle the authentically Mancunian (Chorley) and the generic (New Bridge, Birch Street) with odd-sounding names such as Continents, Mountains or Geology.


Anyone trying to use the frontispiece map as a guide to Manchester would very soon get as lost as Revel did – quite apart from the liberties Butor has taken with the real city, the map shows only those streets and landmarks which play a part in the narrative. Manchester’s Strangeways prison does, however, retain its distinctive shape and is a brooding presence at the heart of the novel.


Manchester’s rain and fog, the smoke from its chimneys, the days without daylight, the sprawl of the city in which one could walk for hours and not reach the countryside, the black water of the canal – these are both the reality of 1950s Manchester and its myth.


And the novel draws you in with its opening chapter, which blends poetry

Suddenly there were a lot of lights. … I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark window-pane covered on the outside with raindrops, a myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling

with the mundane miseries of travel

this was not the fast through train which I ought to have taken and on which I was to have been met; I had missed that by a few minutes at Euston, which was why I’d had to wait indefinitely at some junction for this mail-train

and foreshadowing, of the mundane miseries still to come, and of the darker and deeper threat to be faced:

I remember standing up and smoothing out the creases in my raincoat, which was then still sand-coloured. ….For my vision was still like clear water; since then, every day has clouded it further with a sprinkling of ash

It’s reasonably clear at this stage that the narrator is writing in May about the events of the previous October.  As the time scheme for the novel becomes more complex, the darker undertones become more prominent, and the reader will either be mesmerised, as caught up in the threads as the narrator himself, or merely mystified and frustrated.

Poet Allen Fisher was in the former category, and that tantalising opening section inspired his own poem, ‘Butor. Passing Time again’:



window-pane covered on the


litdrops, a myriad


restring parcel of

feeble light

drizzled down from the grimy

sealing a thin blanket of noises

enfold me begin to thin

Philosopher Richard Wollheim’s 1969 novel A Family Romance uses a diary format to chronicle a man’s plans to poison his wife.  The protagonist is reading L’Emploi du temps and ruminates on the notion of murder and argues – seemingly with Butor but more accurately with Revel – about the way in which the diary records events, looping backwards and looking ahead – but ultimately coming to a realisation that ‘a man might change his mind’.

the hero, a young Frenchman, … picks up a crime story called ‘The Murder of Bleston’, Le Meurtre de Bleston.  … He wants to murder Bleston and wishes someone actually would. (p. 15) … The author of the book I’m reading attributes to an author within the book an interesting theory about the book he’s writing.  He – the author within the book – is a writer of detective stories, and his theory is that every detective story is constructed around, we might say is a string stretched between two murders: the murder committed by the assassin upon the victim, and the murder committed by the detective … upon the assassin (p. 55)

As against the author of L’Emploi du temps I invoke a notion of completeness which insists, not that everything is in, nothing out, but rather that any signle thing that is in should bear upon it the marks of every other thing, in or out. … If my criticism of Butor is justified, what he ignores – namely, that addition alters what is added to – is something that is not a necessary feature of all writing but is a feature of, and a defect in, his writing (p. 122)

I have argued … that the later entries [in Revel’s diary] are either disruptive or superfluous.  Disruptive, that needs no explanation: superflueous, in that if the later entries do not nollify the earlier ones, then they have been anticipated by them, everythng that they have to say is buried in the earlier ones if only we dig deep enough.  Alternatively, if Butor really felt he still had something to say, why did he not rewrite the diary as a totality? (pp. 161-2)

It gave better than any other book I’ve ever read the feeling of how where one is affects who or how one is. … perhaps it’s not so much a matter of what a place does to one as what one does to the place or rather what one can’t do to the place, ‘the intractability of Bleston'(p. 229)

In criticising L’Emploi du temps, what I never appreciated is that a man might change his mind (p. 236)

For artist Steve Hawley the novel seemed to anticipate interative fiction, and it inspired his film, Yarn:

a “recombinant narrative” or generative cinema DVD video installation, using archive footage of Manchester of the 1950s, and a voiceover spoken by a computer programme, which uses the capacity of the DVD medium to present different scenes and spoken text so that the narrative never repeats itself.

The experience is like the 1001 nights, in that the story has no beginning and no end, but rather an immersion in a narrative world where fact and fiction are blended.

I have explored elsewhere the response of W G Sebald, who came to Manchester 15 years after Butor, to L’Emploi du temps.  This is evidenced in his long poem, ‘Bleston: a Mancunian Cantical’, published in English translation in 2011. The darkness of Bleston fed into his state of melancholy, his alienation from his birthplace and his preoccupation with the landscape of trauma.


So, different readers will find different ways of reading this complex novel.  In doing so they echo Revel’s own efforts to make sense of what is happening to him, of what Bleston is doing to him, or what he can or can’t do to it.  As he reads the detective novel Le Meurtre de Bleston he extrapolates from the hints and clues in the text and conversations with friends, coming to believe that the novel is a fictionalised exposé of a real murder and thus that his revelation of the pseudonymous author’s real identity threatens his safety, and ultimately that a road accident which befalls him is an attempted murder.  He casts himself as the detective, just as he casts himself as Theseus once he discovers the series of tapestries telling that story.  He casts the city as a sorcerer, as a Hydra, as the Minotaur within the labyrinth of its streets, and himself as embattled, attempting to resist its power.

There are so many threads that one can follow through the labyrinth of the text.  But given its capacity to draw in British readers in particular through the fascination of seeing ourselves through others’ eyes, and through the dry humour of the portrayal of a 1950s northern city, it is sad that Jean Stewart’s English translation is currently only available at prices that would deter all but the most dedicated readers.  Perhaps, when the British press gets around to noticing Butor’s passing and commemorating it appropriately, some enterprising publisher will take a punt on reissuing it, and giving a new generation of readers the chance to explore those rainy streets and lose themselves in Bleston.

Meantime, his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape can be found in translation at quite a reasonable price, if you feel inclined to explore its Gothic mysteries…

Allen Fisher, ‘Butor. Passing Time Again’, in Gravity (Salt, 2004)

Steve Hawley, ‘Locative Narrative and an IPhone App: Manchester as a Mythical City’

W G Sebald, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, translated by Iain Galbraith (Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

Richard Wollheim, A Family Romance (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969)


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Michel Butor, 14 September 1926-24 August 2016


A writer more written about than read, perhaps.  A demanding writer, ‘difficile et crypté’, yes.   And impossible to sum up, as obituarists are doubtless realising right now, as the news of his death crosses the globe.

All the tributes will make the obligatory reference to the ‘nouveau roman’, despite Butor’s insistence that he was never really a part of this group, despite the fact that it was never really a group anyway.   All the tributes will mention La Modification (though the French Minister of Culture has apparently referred to it today as La Consolidation…), his best known work.  But a glance along the shelves of even a modest Butor collection such as mine will show the diversity of his oeuvre.


Four novels, all from the 1950s, including the aforementioned La Modification, as well as the novel which has obsessed me for the last 10+ years, L’Emploi du temps. Mobile, an ‘étude’ on the US, a sort of road movie in poetic form.

mobilela modles motsOu


Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape), which plays with autobiographical elements and Gothic horror tropes: ‘history, fact, illusion, myth, dreams, legends, black magic and memory become indistinguishable’.  The series Genie du lieu (Spirit of Place), meditations on the places he lived, worked in and visited, from Egypt to Australia, and back (again and again) to Paris with whom he had a love-hate relationship throughout his life.  Another series of meditations, on dreams, Matière de rêves, as well as Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire.  Essays on literature, and Illustrations, texts to accompany imaginary images.  Dialogues with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and with Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos.  And collaborations – with composers such as Henri Pousseur, and with visual artists with whom he produced ‘artists’ books’, where his text worked with/alongside/as part of the piece.  Poems by the hundred, some few collected in the Anthologie Nomade.

Butor was born in a suburb of Lille, third in a family of seven children.  His father worked for the railways, but was also an artist.  They moved to Paris in 1929, where they remained apart from a spell in Evreux during the ‘phony war’.  After studying at Lycée Louis le Grand and the Sorbonne, Michel taught in Egypt, then took up a two-year post as lecteur at Manchester University (‘a difficult change of climate’). He published his four novels with Editions de Minuit, and they gained considerable critical acclaim, winning prestigious literary prizes.  He married Marie-Jo, had four daughters, travelled and taught around the world, his last academic post being at the University of Geneva.  Retired since 1991, he continued to write, particularly in collaboration with other writers and artists, but the loss of Marie-Jo in 2010 meant that ‘the powerful creative spirit, the enthusiasm for reaching new frontiers of understanding and knowledge, and the appetite for travelling, all were less intense’.

Attempting to sum him up might be a lost cause.  His Complete Works (which was acknowledged to be far from complete) ran to 12 hefty volumes.  A ‘perpetual innovator’, he was preoccupied with crossing and blurring borders and boundaries, between countries, between people, between creative genres.  He was a poet, a philosopher, an academic, a specialist in music, painting and literature, and a great traveller, and he built a body of work that was unclassifiable and complex.

artist book

He saw art in its broadest sense as a ‘ gigantic weaving, with a profusion of individual strands and threads’, to which all the arts and all artists contribute.  There is no such thing as an individual work, no such thing as a completed work.  The boundaries between text and music and painting are not fixed, they are ‘three faces of the same enterprise’, this ‘immense cultural weaving’.

And while readers and critics acknowledge that his works make strenuous demands upon them, what is also acknowledged is that he was a man with ambition but without arrogance or ego.  He believed in the importance of his own work as part of this cultural fabric, but not in his personal importance.  He was no austere ascetic, but loved wine, and jazz, and detective novels. He was generous and warm, as his many interviewers have invariably noted.

He was also idealistic.  He believed that art could change the world, that it was vital.  Poets to him were the researchers and the technicians of language, and it was through working on and with language that they could change the world.     His adolescence in Paris during the Occupation, when violence and the thread of violence were ever present, when words were dangerous and silence could be resistance or collaboration, when knowledge was rationed and ideas a clandestine currency, haunted his work and fired his beliefs in art and freedom.  He didn’t write to sell books, he wrote to find a unity in his life, writing was a ‘spinal column’.

Butor’s writing does not lend itself generally to uplifting quotations.  But today one does spring to mind.

Every word written is a victory over death.

He wins.



Bibliography (incomplete…)

Passage de Milan (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1954)

L’Emploi du temps (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1956), translated as Passing Time, by Jean Stewart (London: Faber, 1965)

La Modification (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957)

Le Génie du lieu (Paris: Grasset, 1958)

Essais sur les modernes (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)

Histoire extraordinaire: Essai sur un rêve de Baudelaire (Paris: NRF Gallimard, 1961)

Mobile: Etude pour une représentation des États-Unis (Paris: Gallimard, 1962)

Description de San Marco (Paris: Gallimard, 1963)

6 810 000 litres d’eau par seconde: Etude stéréophonique (Paris: Gallimard, 1966)

Portrait de l’artiste en jeune singe: Capriccio (Paris: Gallimard, 1967)

Dialogue avec 33 variations de Ludwig van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)

Où: Le Génie du lieu II (Paris: Gallimard, 1971) 

Matière de rêves (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)

Boomerang: Le Génie du lieu III (Paris: Gallimard, 1978)

Improvisations sur Michel Butor: L’Ecriture en transformation (Paris: La Différence, 1993)

Stravinsky au piano (Paris: Actes Sud, 1995)

L’Utilité poétique (Saulxures: Circé, 1995)

Anthologie nomade, ed. Frederic-Yves Jeannet (Paris: Gallimard, 2004)

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It is happening right here…

A week after the Brexit vote, I attempted to corral my thoughts, rein in my emotions and say something about what had happened, and what it might mean.  I talked in particular about what was already being reported as a spike in racist abuse and attacks, just in those first few days, often explicitly linked to Brexit – ‘we won, why are you still here?’ and so on.

At that point, this was something I was reading about in the press.  But as I’ve talked to friends and colleagues since then, it’s become apparent that it’s happening right here.  Of course, why wouldn’t it?  How could we imagine that we would be immune?    That’s what prompted this sign, in the window of the Hicks Building, home to the Physics & Astronomy department at the University of Sheffield, a place which celebrates the global nature of science and academic study.



This is just one incident.  It happened to someone I know, someone who spoke with passionate articulacy about what it meant, personally and for his colleagues and fellow citizens.  It happened yards away from the sign pictured above, it happened whilst I was revelling in music at the start of Tramlines, which seems to me to sum up everything I love about this city, it happened close at hand, in my city, at my University.

Matthew Malek had a near miss with a driver going at an unsafe speed.  There were minor remonstrations, as one might expect.  But when the driver shouted ‘“Learn how we walk in this country, immigrant bastard!”, the nature of the encounter changed radically.  Matthew is a British citizen – irrelevant, apparently, because he has a New York accent, and his features show his Egyptian (Coptic) heritage.  What struck Matthew most was the use of the word ‘immigrant’ as an unequivocal term of abuse. ‘He spat the word in precisely the same tone that I have heard others use the slurs “nigger”, “faggot” and, on occasion, “Jew”. It is a tone adopted for the express purpose of degrading and demeaning.’

The driver seemed ready to translate verbal abuse into a physical attack.  Had this happened in a less public place, at a less busy time, with fewer CCTV cameras to record the encounter, he might well have done so.

Matthew has lived in the UK for over a decade and this is the first time anything of the sort has happened to him.  He shared his account because he felt it was important that people know  that ‘the rising tide of racism’ is on our doorstep:

We have all seen the news reports of a rise in racial violence over the past month… but it is not just happening somewhere “out there”. It is happening right here, in Sheffield, in a Northern city that celebrates its friendliness and its strong ties to community. It is happening right here, on our university campus.

We celebrate our internationalism, we draw students and staff from all over the world.  And having welcomed them here we want them to be safe, we want them not to feel afraid, not to feel alone.  We can and must be witnesses, we can and must speak out, we can and must stand with each other.  We have far more in common than that which divides us.

Stop Hate UK helpline – 0800 138 1625

Tell MAMA supports victims of anti-Muslim hate and is a public service which also measures and monitors anti-Muslim incidents. Call us: 0800 456 1226, E-mail:, Twitter: @tellmamauk, SMS: 0115 707 0007, WhatsApp: 0734 184 6086





It was Heaven

Tramlines.  A concentration of musical joy into one exhausting, exhilarating weekend.

We saw 18 bands – could have fitted in a few more, perhaps, and certainly there were so many more that we wished we could have seen.  But heavens above, what we did see…

The sheer variety is one thing.  Even limiting ourselves to a cluster of City centre venues, we went from indie pop to instrumental jazz to hypnotic electronic trance to grunge to ska to bluesy soul.

Only two bands were known to us, and both of those only through previous Tramlines.  Nordic Giants‘ visceral post-rock with accompanying films left us stunned last time and no less so this year – we stumbled out of the City Hall ballroom and took refuge in the Cathedral for Beaty Heart’s psychedelic drum pop.

And we went back for more from Allusondrugs, having been blown away by their urgent psych-grunge with accompanying manic leaping about and flailing of locks a couple of years back.  Still just as potent, and the venue enabled the more fearless members of the audience to hurl themselves about with abandon too, joyfully thudding into one another, and screaming out the words.  The bass player – and his bass – surfed the crowd too at one point.

Saturday afternoon means the World Stage, in the Peace Gardens.   The sun shone for us all and the music was infectious and energetic.   Steel City Rhythm‘s reggae fusion featured mad ska dancing and we all danced too, albeit with rather less energy and agility.  And Danish band Whiskeyordnen turned up in dapper suits (jackets were soon discarded) and delivered what they variously describe as Worldtheaterjazzfunkrock, Chaoslounge, Fusion, Technojazz, instrumentally tight and delightfully engaging.

Sheffield Cathedral has always been one of our favourite Tramlines venues.  It’s not just the deliciously transgressive feeling of sitting on the floor of the Cathedral drinking Moonshine (this year sitting just behind a dude in a Antichrist Bootcamp t-shirt…), it’s that, with the right band, the acoustics become part of the performance.  Most bands playing there for the first time are very powerfully aware of the nature of the place, the associations it has and the atmosphere that its architecture creates.  This year the music seemed especially well fitted to the venue.

Mt. Wolf, Meilyr Jones, Beaty Heart, Dan Mangan, King Capisce all played with it in various ways, allowing subtle or soaring vocals to resonate, rhythms to echo, and harmonies to multiply.  Meilyr Jones at one point abandoned the stage to swim across the stone floor, still singing. And Dan Mangan too left the stage and the amps and performed for us as we sat on the floor around them.  The finale was Moon Duo, whose space-rock sounds were accompanied by a light show playing hypnotically across the Cathedral stone work.

What I’ve found myself unable to do this year is to pick one absolute, no real contest, stand-out moment.  We didn’t see a duff band this year, and that wasn’t achieved by playing safe.  With the two exceptions noted above, we knew nothing about the bands we chose to see, other than the brief (and often enigmatic) blurb in the programme. We took a punt on them, and were rewarded with performances that were at the very least enjoyable and engaging, and at best exhilarating, engrossing, moving and intoxicating.

Throughout the weekend, the city was suffused with music.  It seemed to be spilling out from every doorway, every venue packed, the vibes, or so it seemed to us, joyous, positive and inclusive.  There’s lots to be anxious about just now.  We know that the city is not as united as it seemed to be, as we flitted between gigs and street food emporia.  We know too that the aftermath, a sea of cans and bottles and general debris, will not look so lovely and will take a heck of a lot of clearing up.  But if we can be united in music for a weekend, dancing together in the sun, that gives me hope.  We walk back to the road, unchained.

The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass
We played our songs and felt the Yorkshire sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven

Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon
To paint that love
upon a white balloon
And fly it from
the topest top of all the tops
That man has pushed beyond his brain
Satori must be something
just the same

We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size
We talked with tall Venusians passing through
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared
Climbing through
the ivory vibrant cloud
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained

“The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party
The Sun Machine is Coming Down, and We’re Gonna Have a Party.”

(David Bowie, Memories of a Free Festival)

Our Tramlines 2016 was:

Friday 22 July

Leadmill: Northern Adolescence, Gramercy Park; Cathedral: Mt Wolf, Meilyr Jones

Saturday 23 July

Peace Gardens: The Unscene, Steel City Rhythm, Bell Hagg Orkestar, Whiskey Ordnen; Cathedral: Dan Mangan; City Hall: Nordic Giants; Cathedral: Beaty Heart

Sunday 24 July

Crystal: Starkins, Allusondrugs; Peace Gardens: Sushi; Leadmill: Reflektor, Hot Soles; Cathedral: King Capisce, Moon Duo


PS Early Bird Weekend tickets for Tramlines 2017?  Sorted.





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