Edward Lear in Albania

Happy Birthday Edward Lear. Google’s reminder that today is Edward Lear’s 200th birthday is a good prompt to get Edward Lear in Albania down off the shelves, a book I had the opportunity to produce for IB Tauris and The Centre for Albanian Studies. It’s one of the book designs I am most pleased with, and still the only one that has inspired a reader to enquire (via the publisher) what font is used: Goudy Old Style.

The book essentially covers the Albanian part of Lear’s Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans, documenting the 15 months in 1848-9 this intrepid traveler spent exploring the countries around the Mediterranean.

In the journals and drawings he vividly describes the remote landscapes in which he traveled and the people he met along the way, and the pleasures – and many inconveniences – of journeying in such rugged and often perilous countryside.

Describing Albania, he writes

Luxury and inconvenience on the one hand, liberty, hard living and filth on the other.

Yenidje and Vodhena, drawn at the scene in pencil, later in the studio ‘penned out’ in sepia ink then coloured using watercolor washes, based on notes he had made at the scene:

Here, in the entry for October 4th, he describes the landscape around Skodra:

Perhaps the grandest of all the views of Skodra was from the rock eastward of the bazaars; the castle, the mountains above – the ruined town below – the river winding beneath its bridges into far distance, form one of the finest pictures. As the sun was sinking low, its rays, clouded through the day, lit up the northern side of the landscape brilliantly, and from the steep castle hill – my last halt – nothing could have been more splendid than the rich foliage and glittering dwellings on the one side and the dark ranges of deep blue and violet hills against the bright sky.

Edward Lear in Albania: Journals of a Landscape Painter in the Balkans

Wislawa Szymborska

I was sad to learn that Wislawa Szymborska, one of my favourite poets, died yesterday in Krakow, aged 88.

Her total output was small – when she was awarded the Nobel prize she had published barely 200 poems, and in her lifetime published something less than 400 poems – but, like their author, the poems have a quiet authority and always brought a new way of seeing.

Take Cat in an Empty Apartment for example, a wonderful poem about the death of a friend – from the point of view of the cat:

Die — You can’t do that to a cat.

Since what can a cat do

in an empty apartment?

Climb the walls?

Rub up against the furniture?

Nothing seems different here,

but nothing is the same.

Nothing has been moved,

but there’s more space.

And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,

but they’re new ones.

The hand that puts fish on the saucer

has changed, too.

Something doesn’t start

at its usual time.

Something doesn’t happen

as it should.

Someone was always, always here,

then suddenly disappeared

and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet has been examined.

Every shelf has been explored.

Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.

A commandment was even broken,

papers scattered everywhere.

What remains to be done.

Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,

just let hims show his face.

Will he ever get a lesson

on what not to do to a cat.

Sidle towards him

as if unwilling

and ever so slow

on visibly offended paws,

and no leaps or squeals at least to start.

[Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh]

Posted also in memoriam of Barney, faithful family dog who you can see at the coast at Kimmeridge in the masthead above, and who in his own way was quite fond of cats, who also died yesterday.

Exile’s Letter

I was reading ‘My Heroin Christmas’, one of the essays in Terry Castle’s excellent The Professor and Other Writings, and an aside took me to this astonishingly beautiful poem by Ezra Pound, a ‘translation’ from the Chinese of Li Po.

Widely considered the greatest poet of China, Li Po wrote the poem in about 760 AD whilst in exile. It takes the form of a letter to the Hereditary War-Councillor of Sho, “recollecting former companionship.”

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

Pound knew ittle Chinese himself, and the translation is based on notes on the original poem made by Ernest Fenellosa, an American scholar who studied Chinese poetry while living in Japan.

The poem first appeared in ‘Cathay’, published in 1915, and containing, according to its title page ‘translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.’ However, it is not a good idea to look at the poems as literal translations – in fact, as the prominent Pound scholar Hugh Kenner argued, to do so is to miss the point.

Pound sought to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template

… maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.

Also included in Cathay was Pound’s ‘translation’ of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Seafarer’, written in roughly the same historical period and, thematically, very similar. In the ABC Of Reading (New Directions, 1960) Pound wrote that he considered ‘Exile’s Letter’ and ‘The Seafarer’ the two greatest poems of the eighth century.

Art Pepper (and/or his wife with whom he wrote the book) used the lines

What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.

as the epigraph for his autobiography ‘Straight Life.’

Read ‘Exile’s Letter’ by Ezra Pound

Can you live without French fries?

I had never heard of Nora Roberts, massively bestselling writer of romance fiction, before last week, but from the article and interview with her in The Observer 20.11.11 there are two things I liked about her right away:

– That she wrote one of her books, ‘Remember When,’ with J D Robb – who is also her.

– And this response to a reader who had asked her for her views on French fries:

Barb, how can one live without French fries? Not well, I say. In fact, I’ve been known to say a day without French fries is like a day without an orgasm.

As she says later on (and memo to self) –  there’s nothing wrong with being happy.

Jeff in Venice

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is not Geoff Dyer on best form, but just when you think you can’t take any more of Junket Jeff downing Bellinis in Venice or drifting in Varanasi, he comes out with a passage like this, and suddenly there isn’t a book you’d rather be reading:

Her voice promised absolute devotion; but then the note was stretched further still, beyond this, until you wondered what you would have to do to be worthy of such devotion, such love. You would have to be that note, not the object of devotion but the devotee. Her voice slid and swooped. It was like those perfect moments in life, moments when what you hope for most is fulfilled and, by being fulfilled, changed – changed, in this instance, into sound: when, in a public place, you glimpse the person you most want to see and there is nothing surprising about it; the pattern in the random, when accident slides into destiny. A note was stretched out as long as possible and then a little longer; it continued, somewhere, long after it was capable of being heard. It is still there, even now.

For Geoff Dyer at his best (IMHO) read Out of Sheer Rage. This is one of my favourite books and it’s every bit as wild and wonderful as its progenitor, Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature .

Aubrey Herbert

The Aubrey Herbert book launch at Portcullis House, with Kate (far right) “looking Albanian.”

Aubrey Herbert was one of a kind, and described by John Buchan (who based the character Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle on Herbert) as

The most extraordinary combination of tenderness and gentleness, with the most insane gallantry that I have ever known – a sort of survivor from crusading times.

Very good to see the book – Albania’s Greatest Friend: Aubrey Herbert and the Making of Modern Albania: Diaries and Papers 1904-1923 – finally in print and available, overseen, as ever, by my good and indefatigable friend Bejtullah, prime mover at the Centre for Albanian Studies.

Published by I B Tauris and The Centre for Albanian Studies. Editors Jason Tomes and Bejtullah Destani. Book design by westrowc

[Photo by Jeni, for which many thanks]

The fire from a little spark

‘Everyone knows that the fire from a little spark will increase and blaze ever higher as long as it finds wood to burn; yet without being quenched by water, but merely by finding no more fuel to feed on, it consumes itself, dies down, and is no longer a flame. Similarly, the more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy…’

Am reading the section on Etienne de La Boetie in Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book on Montaigne, ‘How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ (which I’ve just heard has won the 2010 Duff Cooper award – congratulations to her) and was struck by the extraordinary prescience of his essay ‘ Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator (Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un).

His essay, written over 450 years ago in 1552 or ‘53, seems to describe just what is happening in the Arab world today – the people awaking for an almost hypnotically induced slumber, of consent to be ruled by ‘the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them.’

In the essay La Boetie questions why people agree to be oppressed by government overlords and concludes that it is not just fear, for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn:

… But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces. 

In this, he became one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, and (can we hope?) explains why Gaddafi and similar rulers cannot, in the end, prevail.

Consider the justly famous battles of Miltiades,4 Leonidas,5 Themistocles,6 still fresh today in recorded history and in the minds of men as if they had occurred but yesterday, battles fought in Greece for the welfare of the Greeks and as an example to the world. What power do you think gave to such a mere handful of men not the strength but the courage to withstand the attack of a fleet so vast that even the seas were burdened, and to defeat the armies of so many nations, armies so immense that their officers alone outnumbered the entire Greek force? What was it but the fact that in those glorious days this struggle represented not so much a fight of Greeks against Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over greed?

see full essay at http://www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm

New Directions

The new year is an invitation to assess what’s working, and what’s not. But for every new direction you commit to, there’s the road not taken – and the thorny problem of being happy with the choice you make.

Robert Frost’s famous poem on this theme (‘The Road Not Taken‘) dramatises this moment of choice and, according to comments made by the author at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1953, was inspired by

“a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”

The Road Not Taken‘ was first published in Frost’s collection Mountain Interval in 1916, almost perfectly midway between publication of ‘Swann’s Way’ (Du côté de chez Swann, 1913) and the first part of ‘The Guermantes Way ‘ (La côté de Guermantes’, 1920), of Proust’s ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’:

For there were, in the environs of Combray, two “ways” which we used to take for our walks, and they were so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door according to the way we had chosen…

(Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin translation)

The great reading journey, in search of lost time, that I plan to take again in 2011.

The Corrections

A week in bed ill at least provided an opportunity to finish Jonathan Franzen’s breakthrough book. I know, only a decade behind the curve and I should be reading Freedom, ideally the uncorrected version.

The quality of his writing is exceptional, but I found the book easier to respect than to love. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this wonderful line, on Denise (for me the most vivid and exciting character):

Her heart was full and her senses were sharp, but her head felt liable to burst in the vacuum of her solitude.


These Poems, She Said

I had known of Robert Bringhurst only as a typographer and author of the excellent ‘Elements of Typographic Style.’ But he is also a wonderful poet, as the sharp, witty and penetrating  These Poems, She Said demonstrates.

Love means love

of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.

Read the poem here. It is from Selected Poems by Robert Bringhurst.

The importance of peeling an orange

You may or may not dare to eat a peach, but this is why it’s important to peel an orange:

Many people believe that they can remain unaffected by the beliefs and attitudes of the age. But no one can. As we live in the age, so the age lives in us.

And one of the most insidious beliefs of the age, I think, is that fulfillment is effortless, even inevitable. But the opposite is true. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Recently I came across a tragically significant fact. Sales of oranges are plummeting, because no one can be bothered to peel them anymore. I can’t give you any prescriptions but … I can give you a spiritual exercise, something to purify your souls.

Buy an orange. Take it home. And peel it. Slowly. Deliberately. Voluptuously. Above all defiantly – in defiance of this age that demands everything to be easy.

An excerpt from Michael Foley, author of The Age of Absurdity, speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, on the Philosophy Now podcast from Philosophy Press.

Do subscribe to the monthly podcast, presented by Julian Baggini, and celebrate the readiness of philosophers to engage once again with questions of how to live and renewed confidence in the power of philosophical insight to work a practical effect on our lives. And enjoy peeling that orange.

Take time

The merry merry month of May

I have been meaning to write about the merry merry month of May, and its derivation, since April. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I haven’t written about it, not simply because I’ve been massively busy with new work, but because it’s just not a question that interests me enough. Look around you is probably the answer, and perhaps one of the poems in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, published in 1600:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;

So the poem for this month is from (the poet laureate) Carol Ann Duffy’s collection Rapture. I have chosen the poem ‘You‘; you can read it here.  Then buy the book. You won’t be disappointed. Incidentally, isn’t ‘Rapture’ a beautiful word? The sound of the word alone carrying its meaning.

Also what made me sit up this week was the South Africa Today series of articles in last Sunday’s Observer, which I have just caught up with. The piece by Rian Malan is wonderfully caustic, the article by Albie Sachs full of quiet beauty, but best of all the farewell note written to Margie Orford by Rashied Wewers, the oldest member of her writing class in Victor Verster maximum security prison:

I am

A book with a damaged cover, but what is

Written between the lines could save a country

From a disaster.

Lean as a gnawed bone

and as cold as an axe head.’

Thus the description of the Duke of Norfolk in Wolf Hall, which is every bit as good, and exhilarating to read, as the reviews say it is, and the beginning of which is an object lesson in how to start a piece of writing in the middle of the action.

The description sparks the image of ‘lean’ Cassio in Julius Caesar, but also … of poor old Posh (of & Becks) who never manages to look as if she’s enjoying anything. Quite the opposite of Ms Dahl, if the tv ads for her upcoming cookery show are anything to go by. Move over Nigella, there’s a new star in the kitchen.

[later.. ] But of course Posh is Anne ‘glancing around with her restless black eyes, eating nothing, missing nothing, tugging at the pearls around her little neck.’

Love-making by Candlelight

This is a fine winter poem by Scottish poet Douglas Dunn, from his collection Northlight published (by Faber) in the late ’80s. I was reminded of it when I saw a copy in our local Oxfam bookshop last week, and reproduce it below.

His poems create a vivid sense of lived reality and are imbued with a generosity of spirit that awakens the heart and mind.

This is the sexiest poem in the collection and there’s a wonderful physicality about it; in the flickering candle light the two lovers exist in this moment of time – and outside of time, connecting past, present and future.

It reminds me of  Candle Mambo, a gorgeous song by Captain Beefheart –

When I’m dancing with my love, the shadows flicker up above
Up above, the shadows do the Candle Mambo

If you don’t know it, check it out on your favourite listening source; well worth a detour.

On a more traditional note, there’s also a good poem (in Northlight) on that classic pastime of Christmases past at the family home: The jigsaw. Here, a couple of short extracts from Jig of the Week No.21:

Under optimum conditions – the room quiet
In fireglow, rain lashing on nocturnal glass –
I start an old American puzzle.


On junior versions of wet, wintry nights
Around Christmas, I tried to be patient.
A jigsaw on a white enamel tray
Encouraging pictorial wanderlust –
My father’s ear close to the wireless set’s
Hummed murmuring of Cold War ’49,
My mother sewing, my brother fast asleep.

Which just leaves me to wish you, dear Reader, a very happy Christmas.

May all your candles be lit, and your jigsaws complete.

Happy Christmas!


Love-making by Candlelight

by Douglas Dunn

Skin looked like this two hundred years ago
When Candlelight lapped the erotic straw
In hilly farms where windowed candlefire
Burnished imperfect glass. Portending haws
Hung on the leafless bush, amazement’s bud
Red on the acres of nocturnal snow
As uplands rose to tufted winterlight,
In their celestial altitude
The eighteenth-century stars.

This is how it must be, shape-shifting fire’s
Impatient nudity and ours
On the big bed. A molten vividness
Dismantles gender and the way it move
Identifies a married venery
Timeless in the bedroom of the species –
A Pictish smile, a medieval kiss,
A whispered pre-industrial draught
On our contemporary bed.

Played on by fire, those clustered cornice grapes
Outwit their plaster: cornucopia’s vine,
Pompeian opulence, rumours
From far back, echoes of Florentine
Intrigue, Renaissance footsteps in the hall
Where gossips overhear indelible
Echoed courtships; and these Muscovian furs
Were linen until fire reshaped
Their transient destiny.

Hands dipped in light-and-shadow-cast
Ledas and satyrs on the bedroom wall.
A candleflame’s a silent chatterbox
And cinematic book: bestiary candle,
History candle, yellow metaphor,
Venereal fire. Open the curtains now
And add a star to what we do and say
Past midnight in our only country,
Our private anywhere.

Who else is looking at the Firth tonight
Drowsy with afterlove? Local Tristan,
Indigenous Iseult, and Dido sees
Aeneas in a navigation light.
Dog-collared Abelard walks Heloise
Among the gravestones, yews and cypresses.
An Orphic nightbird cries ‘Eurydice’ …
Love, touch my heart with who you are
And sleep, history, sleep.

Love-making by Candlelight by Douglas Dunn is from his collection Northlight published in the late 1980s.


By chance caught a wonderful programme on the radio today, on the way back from a seminar on LinkedIn given by Paul Tansey of Intergage (who, incidentally, has a neat way of lodging his name in your brain – he tells an anecdote about transposing the initial letters, which gives you: Taul Pansey).

This digression, by happy coincidence, is not entirely off topic because the radio programme was about the French experimental literary group Oulipo, who create work by imposing restrictions on the way a text will be produced.

Oulipo, standing for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in reaction to the Surrealist movement, to which Quennau had previously belonged. Instead of following the whims of the subconscious, Oulipians deliberately introduce constraints.

According to Queneau, Oulipians are ‘rats, who build the labyrinth from which they will escape’. Queneau’s works included Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes, or 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, in which each page contains a 14-line sonnet, split into 14 strips, which can be separated and re-combined in any order. He estimated that it would take 190,258,751 years for someone to read every combination.

The most famous example of ‘constrained’ literature is Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids using the letter ‘e’. It is ingeniously translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void – again without using the letter ‘e’. Think about it – no ‘he’, ‘we’, ‘they’. Or ‘choose’, ‘delight’ or ‘delirious’. But you can have ‘avid’. And ‘vivid’….

Simplified Technical English, which I use for writing for translation, pares down vocabulary and sentence structure to provide the clearest expression of technical instructions.

In Simplified English, each word is precisely defined; there is only one approved word for a concept, and each approved word can have only one meaning. This eliminates ambiguity, improving precision and clarity (especially for non-native speakers of English). It also reduces the cost of translation (if translation is needed).

And Eunoia? It’s the shortest word in English containing all five vowels. From the Greek word εύνοια. It means ‘Beautiful thinking‘.

The programme, presented by Ben Schott (of Miscellany fame) is well worth a listen. You have six days left to catch it on iplayer here.

Cities of the mind

The inter-city train that Harvey (Taylor of HBT) set in motion in his incisive and characteristically exuberant presentation at the recent Shires BusinessXchange meeting has been running around my mind ever since and prompting searching questions –

Have I got the balance between Domesti and Auda right; Am I in Nebulo, when I should be in Specifi; And what about the balance between Complexi and Simpli (and here he gave us a wonderful quote from Einstein ‘Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler’); Most important of all, am I living in Authenti…?

And thinking about Harvey’s cities got me thinking about, and then re-reading, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, that extraordinary book of imagined cities, of states of mind and experience, of dreams and desire, of images and ideas. The world, parsed through an infinite series of possibilities.

Take the ‘grey stone metropolis’ of Fedora, for example, in the centre of which ‘stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room.’ ..

These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.

On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.

[Cities & Desire 4, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian from William Weaver, Picador]

And then I found this series of ravishing images, inspired by Invisible Cities. The image for Zora is above:

Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced.

See the whole set, by magic fly paula, here.

If you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.


Heading south, and just time to note this, from  Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski, fresh in my bag. Opening the book, this wonderful quote from Seneca:

I am like one of those old books that ends up mouldering for lack of having been read. There’s nothing to do but spin out the thread of memory and, from time to time, wipe away the dust buiding up there.

two thousand years just melt away. Feeling lighter already.