Thursday, 15 October 2009

Sammerthwaite and the Art of State

Sammerthwaite & the Art of State

Sammerthwaite, the ancient poet, whose sole verse collection, Batting Average, might just be found by the determined bibliophile in the more murky corners of Charing Cross Road or Cecil Court, was alive. That fact alone would have surprised most literary scholars – at any rate the rare ones who could recollect his name. They would have expressed further mild surprise to discover this relic of minor literary interest was submerged in Purley, that mock-Tudor arterial two-road town, twenty minutes due south of Victoria on a fast train, where he lived in reduced circumstances, still wrote, and cogitated on selling his letter from TS Eliot.
One thing that would not have surprised those literary students who remembered him, was that Sammerthwaite was poor.
But, though the days when he rampaged through London literary parties were decades behind him, he was alive, and, as old people are obliged to, was drinking bad coffee in a church hall. He sat next to an old man, who was nearly asleep. As ever, he composed idly:

In old age, why do we lurch
To the United Reformed Church?
En masse we make a target for God’s broom
To sweep us from this anteroom

The black rag sniper picks us off
As we prepare our chicken broth
Or starts the canker in our belly
As we browse the daytime telly

A female “organiser” approached Sammerthwaite and handed him a flyer.
‘You may find this interesting,’ she observed. ‘It’s an arts debate.’
‘That means there’ll be wine,’ said Sammerthwaite, who, the organiser noted, smelled mildly of drink.
‘It’s to do with the Prime Minister’s visit, I think,’ she said.
‘That abominable Scotchman,’ said Sammerthwaite in a serious voice. He had no love for Scotland.
He could get by reasonably well for an old man with no savings, but when he was spendthrift with his pension money he often dropped in on various church coffee mornings for the free food. He was thin and had little appetite, which was helpful in the long run.
The flyer interested him for reasons other than just free wine. He had long noted newspaper stories and gossip about the Arts Council and its lavishness with money. For some time Sammerthwaite had resolved to pry money from that organisation, by hook or by crook. He noted the name on the back of the flyer: Jo Grippe, Arts Coordinator.
He left the church hall, invested in a brandy miniature and headed for the council’s offices, in nearby Croydon.

Since falling out of the literary scene in 60s London (his last grand party had ended violently when he attempted to teach an important publisher’s wife how to play ‘Nelson’s Eye’) Sammerthwaite had had many dealings with the council. He knew its landscape, physically, bureaucratically and politically. So it was with ease that he avoided the front desk and was soon knocking on Jo Grippe’s door in the Culture and Leisure department. Ms Grippe proved to be a large, ruddy-faced woman aged about 27.
‘Who are you? How did you get in here?’ she demanded.
‘We spoke a few weeks ago.’
‘Did we? I don’t remember.’
‘Yes, we did, at the library cinema. You gave a talk before that film about the lesbian chickpea and millet collectives in sub-Saharan Africa. I found it most moving.’
She softened. ‘My talk or the film?’
‘Both, actually.’
Sammerthwaite had in fact spent the night in question drinking pints of Ganges bitter and playing pontoon in his local, the Fighting Temeraire. Luckily he’d spotted a poster for the event near Jo Grippe’s door.
‘I’m sorry but I don’t remember speaking to you, but it was a great night. What was it you wanted to talk about?’
Sammerthwaite explained about the flyer.
‘You’re a poet? Cool. Basically, the Prime Minister wants to build bridges in this area with his visit. We want to basically show off the diverse range of artistic activity here: like hip-hop, filmmaking, rap, parkour, street dancing, graffiti art etc. Did you have any ideas for a contribution?’
‘I thought I might recite some Tennyson.’
Jo Grippe’s phone rang. ‘Fucking ’ell,’ she said looking at the number, ‘it’s the mural woman again. She never leaves me alone.’
She picked up the receiver. ‘Jo Grippe.’
There was a long pause.
‘Look, Annunziata, basically we agreed on the content and design weeks ago: giraffes, elephants, children holding hands, map of Africa, fish and the fight climate change and racism logo. Also ‘vibrant’ and ‘diverse’ spelled out (I know you can’t do letters but I’m getting someone for that). You can’t just put Gandhi in it because you saw something on TV about him last night…actually, yeah you can. It’s quite a sweet idea. Steve Biko as well? Who’s Steve Biko? All right, OK, do that.’
She put the phone down. ‘Well, Mr Sam – Mr, I don’t think I’ve got anything for you really.’
‘I don’t mind what I do,’ said the poet; ‘I could do some of my own if you want. I’m writing a huge poem about 20th century history.’
‘I really don’t think there’ll be time. Give me your number and if anything comes up I’ll ring you.’
Jo Grippe had risen and was gently propelling Sammerthwaite out of her office.
‘I’m living in poverty,’ said Sammerthwaite as piteously as he dared.
That word seemed to have great impact on Jo Grippe. As they stood in the doorway she fixed him with her eyes. ‘Basically, I will help, if I can.’
'Poverty,' tittered Sammerthwaite as he rode the lift down to the ground floor. 'Moral poverty more like,' he growled in a fruity colonel's voice.

As Sammerthwaite walked home he found himself near the pedestrian underpass, a series of gloomy concrete trenches illuminated by sallow electric light 24 hours a day. This, he remembered, was the location of the mural. He walked down the ramp. Many schoolchildren ran about screaming while a young woman wearing a mauve pashmina drew Gandhi on the wall. Sammerthwaite stopped by her ladder.
‘That’s a good likeness.’
‘Thank you,’ said Annunziata. ‘What a man.’
‘Indeed. You know what Nehru said about Gandhi?’
‘He said, “it cost a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.”’
Annunziata laughed shortly and uneasily. Sammerthwaite doffed his cap and walked on.
‘Who’s Nehru, anyway?’ said Annunziata to herself.

Sammerthwaite poured himself a reviver.

Nothing from the art of state
Another glancing smart from fate!

The phone rang. It was Jo Grippe.
‘Hi, hi; like, basically, I have got something for you, Mr Sammerthwaite.’
‘Ah, excellent. What is it?’
Jo Grippe told him.
He gulped.
‘Will I be paid?’
‘A hundred quid, basically.’
One hundred pounds!

On the day of the Prime Minister’s visit it was observed that an old man, dressed as a Highland Scot from the time of Culloden, was in and out of the pubs in the town centre, drinking a lot of gin. It was also observed that the man in question was not Scottish.

After the Prime Minister’s party had been shown round the Town Hall, the Library and a bit of the local shopping centre (where an egg missed him by inches) and had sampled some rap, some parkour, some street dancing and some graffiti, Jo Grippe stood up in the Mayor’s Parlour and announced that, in honour of the Prime Minister’s home country, there would now be a short history of Scotsmen in Croydon accompanied by traditional music.
In came Sammerthwaite, his tam o’ shanter set at a rakish angle and with a very perceptible stagger. He was followed by another man dressed in Scottish national costume and carrying bagpipes. Jo Grippe was alarmed to see Sammerthwaite had no notes. There followed a long moment of silence as Sammerthwaite’s rheumy eyes ranged across the audience. He belched quietly. Someone tittered.
Then the bagpipes began.
Instead of advancing to the microphone to recite the history of Scotsmen in Croydon, the poet began to dance an unsteady highland fling.
After a while, the bagpiper was prevailed upon by Jo Grippe to stop playing. Sammerthwaite stopped dancing, drew a toy sword and spoke in to the microphone: ‘“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, timrous beastie!”’
The Prime Minister smiled uneasily and, with prompting from an aide, got to his feet. Political minders moved towards Sammerthwaite, who yelled, in bloodcurdling stage Scottish ‘“O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!”’
The microphone was suddenly switched off. The Prime Minister moved away.
‘Tha need na start awae sae hasty!’ shouted the poet in a drunken boom. ‘Hey, you,’ he continued, ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!’ Sammerthwaite darted forward as he said this and poked the Prime Minister’s belly with the sword. He was quickly surrounded and dragged away. ‘“Wi bickerin’ brattle!”’

And the Press, as they say, had a field day.
Jo Grippe giggled in her office. ‘Basically, it’s bang out of order, BUT, you put us on the map! I’ve seen myself on the news on all channels. Everyone seems to think that publicity of this sort is good. So no harm done, basically. By the way, here’s a council leaflet on alcohol abuse: you can’t be too careful at your age.’
‘So I’ll still get paid?’ asked Sammerthwaite nervously.
‘You would have done anyway. Rules are rules.’

Sammerthwaite stopped at the pedestrian underpass on his way to the pub. Gandhi was gone. Annunziata was painting over him.
‘What’s happened to old Gandhi?’ asked the poet.
‘Not relevant enough, apparently. They want Barack Obama instead.’

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The smoking ban has been good in one way: it has illustrated the purblind, cloistered foolishness of modern British socialism.

What a disaster the smoking ban has been. We are told it has saved 40,000 lives, but so what? Even if the figures are true, that is a high price to pay for the loss of so many public houses and, most importantly, the loss of a coherent social experience.
Even since England “went smokefree” on July 1, 2007, the English pub, already spoiled in too many ways to count here, has gone into precipitous decline.
The first thing that disappeared, obviously, was the aroma of a public house: the mixture of beer and tobacco. I knew immediately this was a great loss, a black-ringed watermark in English history. I first sniffed this intoxicating, deeply adult redolence when I was about eight and was taken in the bar of a pub near where I lived by the publican’s daughter, a friend from school. It still had its Victorian appointments, a splendid circular bar, photographs of famous boxers all over the walls (a previous owner had been a famous fighter) and a space invaders machine that looked like a glass coffee table. That essence of stale beer, fags, cigars and pipes represented, much like onyx table lighters, sports cars and drinks cabinets later, all the heady promise and “glamour” of the adult world.
Incidentally, I walked past that pub a few weeks ago for the first time in many years. The builders were in. I walked up to the door and looked inside: there was nothing: it was an empty space; back to the brickwork on the walls and a new concrete floor, still wet. I can imagine all too well what that interior will be like when it reopens…
So, the smell went. What was left: the astringent aroma of detergent plus B.O and farts. The old internal stratospheres of smoke hid so much.
But this has been well said before. As I say above, the greatest loss is the loss of coherent socializing. Most of my friends are smokers; some light, some heavy. A light smoker, like my colleague Mark Brentano, will toddle out for one perhaps every half an hour. That interrupts the party no more than urination. But most of my other friends smoke far more heavily and, since the ban, have taken to spending the entire evening in beer gardens, regardless of weather conditions, or, when things get truly bad, going out about every ten minutes; but the weather has to be truly appalling for that.
I have to say at this point that I gave up smoking cigarettes in May, 08, because it aggravated chronic esophagitis. I miss them sometimes when I’m tipsy, but not much. But what I really miss is being indoors talking over drink and tobacco. I still like a good cigar, but cigars are an indoor pleasure, and therefore ruled out in pubs.
This will be the third winter I am expected to spend shivering in beer gardens under the sickly glow of the heaters and I have decided I am not going to do it. This means I will see less of quite few people I like, but as Steve Marriott used to say, say lar vee. I don’t enjoy drinking in those conditions.
Now, at this time of year, I find myself thinking nostalgically about something that we used to take for granted: closing the door to the beer garden in October and not stepping foot in it again until the following spring; being inside a warm pub on a cold evening (one with an open fire, preferably), in a mild fug of smoking and conversation.
But I hear a clamour of Cromwellian, socialist repudiation: what about health? What about bar staff?
Health: good and efficient extractor fans and air-conditioning had made pubs far less fuggy than in days of old. Plus there were no smoking areas. Quite often, with some artful arrangement, you could straddle the two areas quite easily, to the satisfaction of all bar the busybodies.
They say it has prevented many heart attacks. Well, certain chain smokers are likely to have delayed their coronaries for a few years, but their bad habits were a matter for them to deal with as individuals.
Bar staff? If you don’t want to work in smoky areas, don’t do it. Do something else. I stopped working behind the bar more than ten years ago because I was sick of serving rude drunks. What is socialism’s non-negotiable legislation for that “social problem”?
In the real world, the world beyond the torturously manufactured arguments that socialists employ to extend their power over us all, people avoid work that does not agree with them. I’m not talking about benefit chicanery here but simply getting another job.
Ah well, our rulers have very little knowledge of being workers.
The smoking ban has been good in one way: it has illustrated the purblind, cloistered foolishness of modern British socialism. In my area, every day, I watch as people – and many children – go about their business, driving, working, walking along the street, openly smoking skunk, an illegal, potentially highly dangerous mind-altering substance, all too aware that the chances of interference from the police are minimal, to say the least. But if I were to walk into a pub and light up a cigarette, the full weight of the law would be soon upon me.
How quickly those fluent and apparently perspicacious politicians of 1997 delivered us into moral insanity. The heavy interference of the state in such matters as smoking, and their apparent “success”, sets a grave precedent to future politicians. They already have their sights on controlling our alcohol intake: note the various powers being handed to councils about how and where drink is consumed; in the north they are starting to limit the sizes of rounds and sometimes having policemen present in the bar. This is all reported by the BBC and other pro-state, pro-political class media outlets quite uncritically and even admiringly. You have been warned.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Patrick Hamilton

2009 is the 105th anniversary of the birth of novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. He is a bit forgotten and unfashionable now, but he’ll come round again in a small way, he usually does. Though his chief subject matter of emotional dysfunction, money and alcohol couldn’t be more ‘relevant’, his stage, the old style pub with separated bars and a murky saloon, has largely been dismantled.
His master was Dickens and, though Hamilton has big flaws as a novelist, I think the big fella would have approved, not least because of Hamilton’s talent for characterization and tart humour.
One of the good things about television back in the day was that it still paid higher art forms the compliment of adapting them for its own ends (apart from obvious exceptions, TV largely lives off itself now, so to speak, with predictably banal results). You could discover literary gems through the box. So it was with Hamilton and me. More than twenty years ago ITV adapted his trilogy of novels about a serial killer called Ernest Ralph Gorse. Although I didn’t know to call it that, I was developing an interest in social history, particularly for the period bookended by the two world wars. The Charmer, as the programme was called, therefore caught my attention.
I sought out the novels but found them hard to come by, though I eventually got the Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, and The West Pier, which Graham Greene judged to be the best novel ever written about Brighton. This was followed by reading Hangover Square and other novels by Hamilton.
Hamilton's novels conjured that gloomy interwar world of intense snobbery and social pretension all mixed up with drink and neurotic behaviour.
Doris Lessing observed that what made Hamilton’s novels ever-relevant was that ‘you can go into any pub and see it happening in front of you’. This is true. As teens, my mates and I spent a huge amount of time in pubs of all types. Then, as now, I liked to observe people and behaviour and, after I’d read a couple of his books, I saw Hamilton as one of those kindred spirit writers you encounter from time to time in life, that seem to be speaking directly to you. You walked into a pub and there, as Lessing said, it all was. Just read his description of a pub’s atmosphere from opening time to closing time in The Plains of Cement.
Although they were changing rapidly and had been pillaged by design fads in the 60s and 70s, some pubs twenty-odd years ago were far closer to the pubs of Hamilton’s era than they are now. The d├ęcor, the attitudes, the behavioural codes, the demographics, the drinks all had a closer connection with Hamilton’s saloon bars than they do now. Depending on which set of friends you were hanging out with, you might find yourself in some small side-street pub that hadn’t changed significantly in decades (the sort of pub that is now usually closed or denuded of its decoration and atmosphere in a vain attempt to make it appeal to the tastes of youth). And there, on some dark winter evening (and it's usually a dark winter evening in his books), you’d see a vignette at the bar that had walked straight out of one of Hamilton’s novels. An aged, pedantic bore with his crossword, a youngish alcoholic chasing the pub coquette, who’d come with a party from the office and stayed all evening getting drunk on “whisky and American”, or rum and coke; the overpowering smell of beer and different tobaccos; the illicit affairs and blazing rows.
And it all still goes on, obviously, and with a vengeance in fact, but the point is that it looked and smelled a little more like Hamilton’s world than it does now, and I found that fascinating.
Although they captivated me, his books were not altogether a pleasant read. Although they were amusing and I loved the literary style, the biliousness, depression and dark atmosphere that sustained drinking can cause sweated off the pages, sometimes causing you to feel hungover even if you were not. But you had to go on with them.
As he aged and guzzled two or three bottles of scotch a day (in this era, where every other television personality claims to have ‘battled the bottle’, Hamilton’s intake reminds us what real and hopeless alcohol addiction is), his authorial voice became ever more hostile and negative, but that, in a way, suited his milieu perfectly. He gave in to the temptation of explaining to the reader in a sour and insistent tone motivations that the reader could already see; consequently, he became at times in print the sort of bore he feared in pubs.
However, his best work is powerful and memorable. Take the first paragraph of The Slaves of Solitude, which comes into my head now and again:

'London, the crouching monster, like any other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, exhaled violently through the same channels.'

As may be deduced from that paragraph, he was at one time a convinced Marxist (like many on the Left he thought the fascist conflagration of the second world war was a ‘crisis of capitalism’) but apparently later became disillusioned. He must have been savvy enough to know that the paragraph quoted above would be perfectly descriptive of city life in any of the workers’ paradises round the world that have followed Marxist revolution, with, of course, the added element of an all-powerful secret police and no freedom of speech or expression.
I don’t have it to hand but the final paragraph of Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, a vision of the countryside smothered in mechanical beetles (cars) is prophetic of today’s teeming traffic domination.
After my early 20s I never read Hamilton again, but I occasionally had a dip, just to see if that comic, queasy and slightly depressing world was, as it were, all still there. And it was, and is. If you come across an old pub that's somehow avoided the wrecking ball of the accountants, nip in and drink a toast to Patrick Hamilton.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A Legend: The first horse to win the Arc, the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby.

Watch this amazing performance here. I never thought he'd get through and judging by the comments afterwards I wasn't alone. Note Clare Balding saying: 'no way, no horse can do this.' Note the commentator: 'Perfection in equine form!'
For once, all the superlatives are appropriate: glorious, unique, we'll never see the like again etc. He saw off the best racehorses in the world. I won not a penny on him - too short to be backed, though the BBC's tame bookie reported someone lumping 50,000 euros on him at the last minute. That punter's heart must have been going when Sea The Stars was well back, caught in traffic and boxed in more than halfway round...

LONGCHAMP, France — The Associated Press Last updated on Sunday, Oct. 04, 2009 02:02PM EDT

Sea the Stars made history Sunday by winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, becoming the first horse to win three of Europe’s top races.

The 3-year-old colt, ridden by 50-year-old jockey Mick Kinane, started slowly before powering home to win his sixth consecutive race — two lengths ahead of Youmzain, ridden by Kieren Fallon and trained by former England soccer star Mick Channon.

Youmzain was the runner-up for a third straight year, while Cavalryman, trained by seven-time Arc winner Andre Fabre, finished third under jockey Frankie Dettori.

Sea the Stars is the first horse to win the Arc, the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby.

“I ended up in a position I maybe didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to risk firing him up,” Kinane said of the start. “They were going a nice pace and I knew I would need a bit of luck in the straight, no matter what happened, but I knew I had the pace to go anywhere I wanted. He is a phenomenal horse.”

Kinane, who claimed his first Arc victory 20 years ago on Carrol House, put an Irish flag around his shoulders after the race and waved to the nearly 50,000 fans that gathered at Longchamp, including American movie star Bo Derek and French actor Alain Delon.

Sea the Stars, son of former Arc winner Urban Sea, has lost only once in his career, in his first race last year in Ireland.

“It’s a big relief. Obviously it was the best horse in the race but you never know,” trainer John Oxx said. “It’s the end of the year and it’s easy to get beaten in the Arc.”

Regarded as one of the best horses in the world, Sea the Stars took advantage of perfect race conditions following a week of dry weather in Paris. Oxx had concerns that rain could have softened the ground and hindered the 4-6 favorite’s chances.

The trainer admitted he was a bit worried when he saw Sea the Stars trailing before his stunning burst of speed.

“There was an anxious moment whether he would go out or go in, but once he started to go you knew he would get through,” Oxx said. “No horse in any race has more speed than he has and Mick wasn’t worried when he was a little bit back.”

Oxx added that it was unlikely his horse would race next year, drawing comparison to last year’s Arc winner, unbeaten filly Zarkava, which was retired eight days after winning the prestigious race for her seventh consecutive victory.

“He has achieved so much. I think it’s highly unlikely he’ll run again next year,” Oxx said. “But we’ll have to discuss that. During the week we’ll have a discussion and see where we go from there.”

Friday, 2 October 2009

Monumental errors

Re the conference: Well, that's Brown and co finished. It's not even funny anymore, is it. A bunch of bullying and conniving clever dicks telling lies as the ship sinks.

Brown! It's really beyond belief. When I wrote in 2005 that when he reached number ten he'd be the strongest box office poison since the dog days of Maggie even I didn't think he'd be this bad, this stupid, self-serving, arrogant and ridiculous. I had only an inkling of what an unpleasant piece of work he is. The story below is representative of the Britain this bullying fool of a prig has helped create. I have seen so many variations on it I've lost count. I don't say he or his colleagues did it on purpose but wiser and more worldly people would have seen it all coming a mile off, before dismantling school discipline, legislating against the family, emasculating the police force, diluting penalties, lobotomizing the education system, enabling drug abuse among schoolchildren, creating a moral wasteland where nothing is ever anybody's fault until it is too late. If I hear that 'son of the manse' nonsense from Brown one more time... In regard to Brown and his government I quote Wren's epitaph: si monumentum requiris circumspice - if you seek his monument, look aboutcha!

The family of a man beaten with a hammer by youths after confronting them about their anti-social behaviour has called for society to "make a stand" so people can live without fear.
Ricky Anderson, 17, was given a life term with a minimum sentence of nine years and two months by Northampton Crown Court after admitting the murder of 65-year-old Peter Bryan.

You see, with morons like these you have to go to war with them and break them before they break something precious. Nobody ever stood up to these people - not in school, not at home; not the law, not the courts. Peter Bryan stood up to them and got his head smashed in for it.