Friday, 21 December 2012

Bah! Hamburg!?

Merry Christmas from Phil Williams!

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and whatever floats your boat continues to float it ...

I don’t know if it’s just me, though, but there does seem to be a frosty sting of austerity in the air. I wandered through Birmingham’s extensive Frankfurt Christmas Market the other day (without spending a penny ... I’d already had a sandwich so couldn’t face a frankfurter or a two-pint tankard of beer). I understand it’s packed on weekends and in the evening but there were few punters around as I passed through. Impressive though, it spilled out with Hansel and Gretel style stalls almost all the way down to New Street station from Chamberlain Square. Perhaps I was being tight (bah! Humbug! Bah! Hamburg? Bah! Frankfurt?!) – but I didn’t even stop to buy some tempting wooden toads with knobbly backs that you run a stick across to play tunes. The bloke at the stall did it well, but he also appeared desperate.

What do you buy for the man/kids/wife who was everything?
A knobbly-backed toad you can play tunes on.

It’s all about choosing your pitch. Or paying for it. The stalls in the main squares seemed to be doing better than those around the edges or down the side-streets. Surely, though, there’s a limit to how many stalls there can be selling virtually the same stuff. The experts will correct me, but there are only so many sausage stalls you can cram into a single market.

It was fun, though, and cheery. I take my hat off to Birmingham City Council for keeping up the cheer despite the impending cuts.

Merry Christmas one and all. ‘God bless us every one!’

Friday, 7 December 2012

Tum te Tum Tum Tum te te Tum te Tum Tum

‘Let us make one thing clear: Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living poet in the English language.’
Nicholas Lezard in a review of Speech! Speech! in The Guardian 2001.

Michael Schmidt, Director of Carcanet Press made the same claim as he introduced Hill at the John Rylands Library, Manchester last night. It’s always intimidating to be in the presence of a Behemoth, a Leviathan. Acutely so in Hill’s Gandalfian presence with his white, Athonite beard and broad, bald dome. As the allusions and references tumble forth you realise that his wide, pink skull contains as much condensed wisdom as the hallowed shelves of the Ryland itself – a cathedral to the written word.

There were many luminaries in the audience, established poets whose works are anthologised or taught in schools. Contemporary poets who lecture, review, run workshops, present TV documentaries. Yet whose collective output Sir Geoffrey once described as so much ‘land-fill’. What acerbic comment and withering judgements would the great man deliver tonight?

We found him in more avuncular mood. The wind and rain was so atrocious outside that he deemed those who had ventured out on such a night to hear him already ‘converted.’ There were scathing comments about bankers, politicians and middle-brow Radio 4 cultural output. Earnest young people who accost him to query his emphasis on ‘form’ would be better joining the ranks of the City execs rather than pursuing the unforgiving angel of poetry ...

Geoffrey Hill lectured at Leeds in my undergraduate days in the 1980s. We were all in awe of him. I only heard him once as my module choices took me in a different direction. I only remember a single line, one he had repeated again and again. Thomas Hobbes on Sydney Godolphin, struck down by ‘an undiscerned and undiscerning hand.’

'Well done, brave Hobbit!' ... Ed Reiss.
I have a photo of myself and Ed at Bill's wedding bash but this isn't it.
Hill must have given this lecture many times. Ed Reiss, the cousin of my friend Bill, a lecturer at Bradford and a poet and reviewer in his own right, had heard it too. He completed the line for me when we discussed it at Bill’s wedding celebration in London. Ed was there last night and I was delighted to hear Geoffrey commend a review he’d written in Agenda.

I was queuing for the great man to sign my second-hand copy of his Collected Poems which I’d found already signed in a Suffolk book-shop. I’d joked with Simon Armitage beforehand (name dropper!) that it reminded me of the incident in Gig where he claims to have found a copy of an early collection he’d signed for his parents in a second-hand dump bin. Just ahead of me, Hill was commending the partner of the poet Frances Leviston for a review he’d written of his previous collection. In doing so he also cited Ed’s review as ‘exactly what a review should be.’

I called Ed over and Hill was generous with his praise. It was a solemn, almost holy moment. It was like watching Gandalf confer an honour on a valiant hobbit.

I went home content and with one abiding thought. To illustrate the English Sapphic metre of a wonderful poem by Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Geoffrey told us he would render the stressed syllable as ‘Tum’ and the unstressed as ‘te’. Imagine then, his grave and magisterial tone as he proceeded to declaim, ‘Tum – te – Tum Tum Tum   – te- te-Tum-te- Tum Tum ...’

Never have I heard a ‘Tum-te-tum-te-tum’ intoned with such Churchillian authority.
(And thanks to Ed Reiss for rendering the caesura at the heart of the dactyllic foot).

The Sidney extract came from Arcadia - 'If mine eyes can speak to do hearty errand/Or mine eyes' language she do hap to judge of ...'

As Lezard put it in that Guardian review (a cutting of which lay at the back of my second hand Collected Poems), ‘One may ask oneself what the hell Hill is going on about, but just listen to the glorious way he says it.’

Sir Geoffrey signed my second-hand collected poems a second time. ‘And again’.
‘Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord,’ I muttered, dropping in an allusion of my own. I first read Hill at school (Genesis), heard him at university, heard him again as the 80 year old patriarch of English verse. Resurgat.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

My wife sings in the choir at the magnificent Astbury parish church on ‘High Days and Holidays’ in exchange for practising with them on a Friday night – one of her few ‘me-times’ during a busy week.

She also sings at the occasional wedding or other service. I like going with her when it’s Candlemas, Easter or Advent – or one of the other major festivals. I love all that. Funnily enough, my wife doesn’t. She is inveterately ‘low-church’ and was perfectly happy when we attended a Baptist church. She’s very pragmatic and doesn’t like ‘fripperies’. She's not keen on wearing the very fetching red choir robes either. I think they’re cool. What she does like, though, is the music. 

They have a very competent and knowledgeable conductor up there at Astbury and they do proper anthems and the kind of traditional Anglican music that is so rarely heard these days. Where else could my wife go – other than to some kind of choral or operatic society – to sing ‘proper’ music? I mean, no disrespect to ‘happy-clappy’ or ‘contemporary’ Christian music buffs (oh, alright, I’ll come clean, with a lot of disrespect for ... ). I'm sure that contemporary worship-songs demand a level of musicianship in a different way, but let’s face it – if you want to sing something more stretching then you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Sure, I accept that these songs are intended for congregational use rather than trained choirs. That said, they so often sound as if they are intended for praise-bands on stage rather than people with a diverse range of singing abilities in the pews or the plastic bucket-seats.

The traditional Advent hymns ‘get’ me every time. Those lines in ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ that run, ‘In ancient time didst give the Law/In cloud and majesty and awe ...’

We also had ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ last night, which struck me as strange outside of a Eucharistic context, but still ... what a cracking hymn.

Some Christian traditions observe Advent as a kind of mini-Lent, not something I have done hitherto. But it makes a lot of sense. If Advent is the season where we remind ourselves of Christ’s first and second-comings and prepare to celebrate his Nativity, then it seems appropriate to mark it in some way. I’m going to explore ways of doing that this Advent season. I’m not quite sure how but I do consciously want to avoid the vapid commercialism that is such a feature of this time of year. Sure, I’ll enjoy my turkey and my Christmas pud’ when the time comes, but I was struck by the note of ‘repentance’ in the sermon last night. Not in any po-faced, pietistic way, but that sense of preparing our minds, adjusting our focus. The rector used a beautiful and striking analogy drawn from London tube-trains ... how we feel the wind and breeze of them before they arrive. I’ll carry that with me as I feel the soft breeze on my cheek, the wind begin to stir and ruffle my hair.