A wonderful night was had by all at Monday’s Book Club Boutique – the 10th – in Soho. Salena Godden, first lady of all that is cool and literary, put together an excellent evening focussing on the London Short Story.
First up was Will Ashon, author of Clear Water and Heritage, who read ‘Taking The Biscuit’, a strange office fantasy about a cruel yet accurate Hob-Nob. Yes. He was followed by Matthew de Abaitua, author of the excellent The Red Men, a novel you must read if you haven’t. Matthew’s unduly curtailed story took up the tale of North London’s Dinner Party Wars, a Ballardian exercise in gourmets and blunderbusses. We hope that the full version sees the light of day somewhere, some time, soon. Lana Citron rounded off the first half with a dirty poem and some musings from her first novel Sucker.
After the break it was the turn of Salena herself, as well as the night’s compére Tony White, reading from his steampunk short Albertopolis Disparu. Albertopolis was of course what I meant to write about when I wrote about Babbage last week, and you should track down a copy (or download it here [PDF]). Tony’s the author of old Bookkake favourite Foxy-T, as well as the even older favourites Satan! Satan! Satan!, Road Rage! and Charlie Uncle Norfolk Tango – and he edited Serpent’s Tail’s classic Britpulp! anthology, which pretty much got us into all this in the first place. It was that kind of night.
Finishing up was Mark Waugh, reading from Bubble Entendre, his new work for Stewart Home’s Book Works imprint Semina, and you can read the two of them in conversation here for an insight into what the hell is going on. We’re huge fans of Stewart’s ongoing Semina project – Bridget Penney’s Index was one of the highlights of last year – and we look forward to more to come.
Of course, none of that covers the beer drunk, but hey, we’ll just have to head back for future weekly installments, including but not limited to a Waugh vs. Fitzgerald Pink Gin Party, a beer bash for Bukowski, and The Queer Book Club Boutique for Gay Pride. See you there. (Take it away, Salena: …)
Charles Babbage is a bit of a Bookkake hero – a scientific, rather than a literary one. Considered the “father of the computer” for his invention of the Difference Engine, an immense mechanical calculator, he also came up with the railway speedometer, the cowcatcher, the actuarial table, and hacked his carriage to include a folding bed and egg-cooking-device (thanks to Sydney Padua for that one).
Of more Bookkake-ish interest is this strange fact: Babbage died in 1871, and was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, but an autopsy was performed and his brain was preserved: and not only separate from his body, but in two halves. One hemisphere resides in London’s Science Museum, close to a replica of his original Engine, while the other sits a few miles away in a jar at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons on Lincolns Inn Fields (a place so wonderful and bizarre it deserves its own post). Hence what psychogeographers have been known to refer to as “The Babbage Triangle”:
In any case, our attention was recently drawn to the great man’s autobiography, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, which is available in its entirety on the Google (and as a downloadable PDF). It’s pretty terrific, and it opens with his eminently sensible musings on the delights and dangers of autobiography, citing ennui and the “the vampires of literature” as possible causes, and suggesting that all in all, it’s a pretty silly thing:
Some men write their lives to save themselves from ennui, careless of the amount they inflict on their readers.
Others write their personal history, lest some kind friend should survive them, and, in showing off his own talent, unwittingly show them up.
Others, again, write their own life from a different motive —from fear that the vampires of literature might make it their prey.
I have frequently had applications to write my life, both from my countrymen and from foreigners. Some caterers for the public offered to pay me for it. Others required that I should pay them for its insertion ; others offered to insert it without charge. One proposed to give me a quarter of a column gratis, and as many additional lines of eloge as I chose to write and pay for at ten-pence per line. To many of these I sent a list of my works, with the remark that they formed the best life of an author; but nobody cared to insert them.
I have no desire to write my own biography, as long as I have strength and means to do better work.
The remarkable circumstances attending those Calculating Machines, on which I have spent so large a portion of my life, make me wish to place on record some account of their past history. As, however, such a work would be utterly uninteresting to the greater part of my countrymen, I thought it might be rendered less unpalatable by relating some of my experience amongst various classes of society, widely differing from each other, in which I have occasionally mixed.
This volume does not aspire to the name of an autobiography. It relates a variety of isolated circumstances in which I have taken part—some of them arranged in the order of time, and others grouped together in separate chapters, from similarity of subject.
The selection has been made in some cases from the importance of the matter. In others, from the celebrity of the persons concerned; whilst several of them furnish interesting illustrations of human character.
W took a little hiatus last week, so we thought we’d better give you something good to make up for it.
Daniil Kharms was one of the more extraordinary members of the St Petersburg literary scene of the 1920s and 30s. In 1928, he founded the avant-garde collective OBERIU, or Union of Real Art. Malevich gave the young oberiuty space in his academy to rehearse, with the words: “You are young trouble makers, and I am an old one. Let’s see what we can do.”
The group was short-lived; its absurdism too much for the increasingly totalitarian authorities, but OBERIU’s work has bubbled up again as a new generation of Russian writers, who read Kharms and his friends in samizdat, claim his influence.
Kharms himself took refuge in children’s literature, for which he is still widely remembered in Russia, while his more adult works are only now starting to see publication… such as this fragment, from 1930:
I love sensual women and not passionate ones. A passionate woman closes her eyes, moans and shouts and the enjoyment of a passionate woman is blind.
A passionate woman writhes about, grabs you with her hands without looking where, clasps you, kisses you, even bites you and hurries to reach her climax as soon as she can. She has no time to display her sexual organs, no time to examine, touch with the hand and kiss your sexual organs, she is in such a hurry to slake her passion. Having slaked her passion, the passionate woman will fall asleep. The sexual organs of a passionate woman are dry. A passionate woman is always in some way or another mannish.
The sensual woman is always feminine.
Her contours are rounded and abundant.
The sensual woman rarely reaches a blind passion. She savours sexual enjoyment.
The sensual woman is always a woman and even in an unaroused state her sexual organs are moist. She has to wear a bandage on her sexual organs, so as not to soak them with moisture.
When she takes the bandage off in the evening, the bandage is so wet that it can be squeezed out.
Thanks to such an abundance of juices, the sexual organs of a sensual woman give off a slight, pleasant smell which increases strongly when the sensual woman is aroused. Then the juice from her sexual organs is secreted in a syrupy stream.
A sensual woman likes you to examine her sexual organs.
It’s been a good and bad week for female (and lesbian) poets, with the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the UK’s first female Poet Laureate, and the death of UA Fanthorpe – who Duffy acclaims in today’s Guardian as “an unofficial, deeply loved laureate for so many people for so many years”.
We’ve already featured Duffy’s poem Steam as one of our Dirty Monday poems, but Fanthorpe was the opposite of a dirty poet: a former English teacher, a hospital clerk, a Quaker, a late poet in both senses, her first verse not published until her 40s. It is a poetry full of quiet observations, of people in waiting rooms, in photographs and paintings, and, too, of religion. But its quietness is often its strength, as she reveals in one of her most loving poems, ‘Atlas’, from her collection Safe as Houses:
There is a kind of love called maintenance
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it
Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;
Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists
And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds
The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living, which is Atlas.
And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.
Her earliest poems, written while working in a hospital, have titles like ‘Julie (encephalitis)’ and ‘Alison (head injury)’ and initiated a kind of ventriloquism that was to become her trademark. Even when approaching weightier subjects, as in ‘BC:AD’, a Christmas favourite, she was capable of writing in a calm and very accessible voice:
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
My favourite poem however, is probably her most popular one: ‘Not my Best Side’, her cheeky and subversive retelling of Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon (reproduced above):
Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.
It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.
I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.
UA Fanthorpe’s works are all available from Peterloo Poets. The title of this post is taken from The Absent-Minded Lover’s Apology (1995).