23 January 2010

Books: Michael Donaghy knew my suicidal hamster

I've been busy reading.

Philip Pullman had me back in his grasp for a while - those Northern Lights are mesmerising. But like C.S Lewis he does do god a little too much. That is rather the point of the trilogy, but still - Mr Pullman. We tire. The first book is thrilling but the further he cuts into new universes (and especially the rather vomit-inducing trip to the world of the dead, nameless harpies included) the more I desire to escape all reference to our erstwhile Creator or indeed his troop of angels. But, that aside, Philip Pullman is a genius and writes a fabulous new version of the Bible that is less risible - an update, shall we say.

Then a slew of Wilbur Smith. Guilty pleasures die hard and Wilbur dresses up a racist nation with hard men and feisty women - he does for Africa what Jilly Cooper does for the Cotswolds, and for that I thank him.

Then Robert Harris' 'Lustrum', the one where Cicero is consumed with thoughts of power and Harris plots his ultimate downfall through the very pleasing and measured voice of Tiro, his scribe and the man who invented shorthand. Whereas in 'Imperium' Cicero is the strong arm of the righteous, here he is the well-spoken icing on a very corrupt little cake. He becomes the figurehead of a failing Rome, and Harris has Caesar all angles and jutting malice quite monstrous in the background. There are so many books about Rome, but Harris is one of the best. So many stand out characters, not least Cicero's wife. One of the worst I have recently discovered is Steven Saylor (from 'A Gladiator Dies Only Once'):

"I left the consul's house with a list of everyone Decimus Brutus could name from his wife's inner circle and a pouch full of silver. The pouch contained half my fee... and if I failed him, I would never collect. Dead men pay no debts."

No shit, Sherlock.

Better is Eric Linklater's 'Magnus Merriman', a little gem I picked up at the Stirling University bookstore. Magnus is a drunken journalist and writer who deludes his way through the war and then Edinburgh and the Orkneys with frankly side-splitting results. Linklater was a contemporary of Hugh McDiarmid and other Scottish Renaissance poets and writers and Linklater lampoons them fondly, but defiantly. Here's an idea of the greatly heroic Magnus:

"In common with the ancient Athenians and the modern Americans, Magnus had a great liking for novelty, and would adopt a new fashion - in though, in clothes, or in behaviour - not only with enthusiasm but with such conviction that often it appeared to have been his own discovery."

A sham. A master. A buffoon. A legend.

I should write taglines for Hollywood movies, n'est-ce pas?

Otherwise it's all poetry, especially remebering Michael Donaghy, who died in 2004. He was a poetic genius and man of Celtic blood and strength who I was taught by, if only briefly. We called him Uncle Mikey and he took us under his wing. He smiled (I realise now he must have been suppressing insane laughter) at my youthful poem about the imagined death of a hamster who was in the same kitchen as Sylvia Plath when she gassed herself. Heavens to Betsy! I can't believe I have revealed such information. I should have called it 'A Hamster Dies Only Once'. The squeaker snuffed it, but by Jings it was a poetic death.
One of my favourite poems of his has always been 'Held - here's an extract ':

Not as this hieroglyph chiselled by Hittites in lazuli,
Spiral and faint, is a word for 'unending',
Nor as the hands, crown, and heart in the emblem of Claddagh,
Pewter and plain on that ring mean forever,
But as we stood at the window together, in silence,
Precisely twelve minutes by candlelight waiting for thunder.

His close friend is Don Paterson, and Paterson's collection 'Rain' includes tributes to Donaghy, so well crystallised and sad and true. For these moments I love poetry. These two poets are a must read; but apart from these two bookish, learned men I have learnt of a darker, less tutored, more dingy poet called Charles Bukowski and his stuff is well worth a look-see. All poetry, however, should be read. Even Andrew Motion.

I once wrote a really mean poem about Mr Motion which was wrong on so many levels, even if I do think the man is an out-and-out bore and try-hard. He deserves a good reading. Like we all do. I wish I could make a speech at an awards ceremony a bit like the recent Mariah Carey one - where I say: "Thank-you all but I'm sorry I'm a bit..." and Andrew Motion shouts "...fucked up!" from the audience. But it will never be, alas.

More blogging, so much more to come and nearing fruition.

Keep reading friends.

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