Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I must have seen the film "The Godfather" half a dozen times. It remains one of the supreme pieces of storytelling in cinema, not least for the way that Michael Corleone, at the beginning of the film a returning war hero who wants nothing to do with his Mafia family, has turned into the successor to his father, the next Don Corleone.

Reading Mario Puzo's original novel, a bestseller that came out three years before the film, I'm struck by how many of the iconic scenes from the film are straight from the book. Copolla, after all, was a late attachment to the film.

"The Godfather" tells the story of Vito Corleone, Don of one of the New York Mafia families. The novel begins just before the wedding of his only daughter Connie, taking place at his home. We are given sketches of several characters who are going to ask the Don for a favour on his daughter's wedding - a favour no Sicilian can resist. The wedding itself is a lavish affair, and brings together the whole family but also the wider Corleone "Family" the enforcers of this criminal underworld. Drawn together by blood ties that stretch back across to Sicily, and over decades, the New York of 1945 - familiar to us from the ticker tape parades of Pathe footage - remains a place where communities still live in ethnic enclaves and where the law often holds less sway than the Mafia. Yet its also a parallel world. Outside the wedding the policemen patrol taking car number plates to see who is attending the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter. We are introduced to Sonny, the hothead elder son, who whisks a way a bridesmaid for the start of an affair on his sister's wedding day, to Fredo, the softest of the three sons whose portrayal in the movie by the wonderful John Cazale is the one character in the novel that is expanded in the movie; and finally to Michael, a returning war hero who defied his father by fighting for country rather than family - something incomprehensible for a Sicilian, used to the corruptions of state power - who brings with him his girlfriend, Kay, an All-American girl.

This long book is a massively successful page turner - but what is so compelling about it, even for one so familiar with the film is Puzo's absolute control of describing this alternate society that exists besides normal American society. Its rules - such as the "omerta", vow of silence - to its roles, with layers of deniability between the "Don" and his captains and the operations underneath - are made clear and vivid from the start. Here we are seeing a man at the height of his powers, a Ceasar receiving tribute. Yet what is equally brilliant is that such a world doesn't happen by accident, and doesn't remain unchanged through luck. The "families" of New York - swelled by Italian immigrants and soldiers returning from war - are at a critical point. The illegal gambling and alcohol, and strongarm smuggling that served them so well from Prohibition through and past the war, may not be enough in the new world. Drugs are the new "cash crop" and younger hotheads are wanting a piece of the action. The "older heads" are only a generation or two from their arrival in America. Corleone himself is named after the village he came from, having being smuggled to America after his father was killed. His own "early life" when he challenges the local hoodlum is sharply drawn (but the story is excised from the film narrative and used in "Godfather II".)

Yet when his refusal to join the drug trade leads to another attempt on his life, there is another war. A war that claims many casualties - including his own elder son, betrayed by his sister's husband - as well as crooked policeman McCluskey, which brings down the whole weight of law on the Mafia operation. The reason that gangsters stories so fascinate in movies and books is because of how they reflect the dark side of the society we live in. The human frailties that lead to prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling create a skewed morality where the illegal activities are "taxed" - but not by the state but through their enforcers both in the underworld and the police. With the whole book taking place within the enclosed world of the Corleone Family Puzo created a superb alternate society, where issues of fidelity, love and honour are played out daily, but without the more distant codes of a more advanced society. Michael Corleone who avenged his father being shot goes to a Sicily he never knew and lives a different life there for a couple of years before circumstance - his discovery and betrayal, the explosion that kills his Italian peasant wife, the death of Sonny - bring him back to face his destiny.

Set primarily in that 10 year period after the war the book is a brilliantly constructured story, that I was surprised to find as compelling to read as to watch. Puzo writes in a cool, objective prose that though it rarely develops into poetic raptures, is fresh and journalistic and adept at knowing how to tell bits of the story. When something bad happens we have often been elsewhere with one of the other characters and only then get the full truth of the story. It seems to me a book that is a genuine classic in its genre, as much for its writing as for the originality of the subject - which has now become such a cliche. In Vito and Michael Corleone he has created two of the iconic characters of the late 20th century. Hard to imagine reading this in 1969 without thinking of Brando or Pacino in the main roles, but so perfect are both of them for it, that reading the original novel there's nothing that seems wrong about that casting.

Not all of the novel makes it into the movies. I can see why the extended bits in L.A. and Vegas are excluded, featuring the singer/actor Johny Fontane (much closer in the book to Sinatra than in the film) as they feel like short stories almost, but in the book they are there for a good reason - to set up for the move West of the Corleone family and the rise of Las Vegas that will follow. I suspect that the hard boiled L.A. noir of Ellroy takes a little from Puzo's book as well as from the noir thrillers of Chandler etc.

I started reading this on a tired Friday night when I wanted an easy read, and it proved to be an inspired page turning choice, every bit as compelling as the film. The novel is highly economical with its storytelling and this is also what comes across in the film, yet every character has a reality to them that makes it far more than a potboiler. "The Godfather" was, of course, the invention that made Puzo. There are later novels that revisit the scenes but of course it was the filmed story - in "Godfather II" and less so in "Godfather III" - which occupied much of his career.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Shortly after I'd started reading "Gilead", Robinson's prizewinning novel from 2004 it was listed as being one of the best novels of the 21st century by American critics. Highly acclaimed for her first novel "Housekeeping", "Gilead" was published nearly a quarter of a century after her debut - though she's since written two more novels.

"In 1956, towards the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son," summarises the back cover, and that's the form of this insular novel. Ames is a third generation "preacher", his grandfather was an evangelical preacher of legend - some of them unsavoury - whilst he has settled down into an urbane life in a dirty poor Iowan town "Gilead" that exists merely as a staging place on the road to Kansas or St. Louis. Ames' life took an unusual turn late on when he married - for a second time - and he has a small boy. The elderly religious pastor, renowned only for his kindness and dedication, with little of the fire of his notorious grandfather, has been at home with his books for many years, a dedicated community figure, even as the congregation reduces and the span of history avoids this dusty outpost.

The setting of the novel seems important - for it places Ames as born around 1880, another world entirely, and his grandfather's main claim for fame was being an abolitionist who ran away with the Yankees during the civil war. Race is an underlying theme of the novel, though in mostly white Iowa, it is hardly present, until the last quarter of the novel, when a revelation brings home the still burning issues of segregation in America three generations on from that nation-defining war. Yet it would be wrong to say that "Gilead" is a novel that aims to take in the whole of America, for its scope and ambitions are far more closely defined than that.

In choosing the epistolary form we only have Ames as company, and though he is "open" with us the reader as he is addressing his young son, it is an "openness" that conceals. His own status as a "good man" is one that he struggles to reconcile with a sense of underlying failure. Yet so strong is his belief in God and the scriptures that he turns to the written word as being the best place where he might find the answer, even as life offers up both wonder (in his late marriage) and torment (in the return of his namesake John Ames Boughton to stay with Rev. Boughton, his ailing oldest friend.) Beginning almost as a sermon, Ames tells his histories - primarily focussing on his grandfather - less so on his own father - but interjects a present story, as his health fails, as the people around him interrupt his life, as he struggles through another Sunday. "When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time," he observes, sardonically. It is this tone of voice which is one of the books sustained pleasures. We are in the company of a good, learned, honest man, but he is no paragon, he is not a pious man. When parishioners go all "hell and brimstone" on him, having heard some preacher on the radio, he reminds them that the loneliest place, is that part of yourself where God has not reached.

Its a highly religiously-charged book, but never offputting as Ames spouts scripture, or scriptural commentary, or talks through his own sermons. In this, Robinson successfully manages to give us a philosophy wrapped tightly within the insides of a quiet novel. There's something very homespun about Ames, even though he's studied widely, and is something of a theologian; just as he's had to tone down his more bookish tendencies for his congregation, he carefully explains his reasoning - leavened with much doubt about meaning, albeit with no doubt about God - to the audience.

Gilead is hardly a place at all - yet it stands as some kind of monument to certain passings of American history. That man stopped off here to do various bits of work, and that manifested itself early on in the building of several ramshackle churches. It seems an America yet to be touched by, or even close to being bypassed by the twentieth century. Here in 1956, neither great war deserves more than a passing mention,the much more recent Korean war may not have happened at all, and Elvis Presley and rock and roll are yet to make it to this outpost of American conservatism. That placing seems somewhat deliberate, yet its also a little odd, for the young Ames as he remembers it are not about leaving (though his brother would, and eventually his father), but about an earlier past that was already fading when he was a young boy. He remembers vividly going with his father to search out the last resting place of his itinerant preacher grandfather - and tries, in the early parts of the book, to piece together the family secrets that drew a line between his grandfather and father. This idea of a struggle of what is good or right seems to be at the philosophical heart of the book. His grandfather may well have killed a man, and hidden fugitives from justice, yet in that man's philosophy it was his the right thing to do. Far worse is the betrayal of family, or the failure to stand up for your own kind.
John Ames has struggled all his life with these questions.

Knowing he is dying, knowing as well that at seventy seven, his free spirited young son, aged seven, will hardly remember him once he's gone, he worries about having not left enough of his legacy for his son and wife, having married so late, he never thought to put a little aside for himself. His long term friend Rev. Boughton is iller than he is, has a vast family, but is made unhappy that the favoured son, the one he named John Ames after his friend, has been away for so long. When the news comes that the son has returned, the older Ames is worried about what it meanss, for John Ames Boughton has never had faith, always got in trouble, and yet remains much-loved by his sister and father. That Ames is suspicious of his namesake manifests itself in awkward conversations, and even more awkward occasions where he suspects an interest in his young wife, and that the younger man might be a threat to the future happiness of his family.

Such are the small plot points and tensions of "Gilead." Its a languid read, but beautifully written, and Ames' tone is pitch perfect throughout. His own character remains a little opaque. Here is the sense of a life lived well, yet nonetheless wasted. Yet Ames' own redemption - for no sins as such - will come towards the very end, as he finally comes to love John Ames Boughton. This idea of delayed destiny - of God's purpose - seems to be one of Robinson's more subtle aims. The other, somewhat contradictory, is that for all the "goodness" of this small religious community, the wider tides of social change mean that the task undertaken by his grandfather to free the slaves, still remain in segregated America a major sore and rift. Yet these moral ambiguities, large in themselves, but filtered through small, if not insignificant moments in Ames's life, and through the voice of Ames himself, are filtered down to such a degree that I think it would be wrong to call "Gilead" out either as a moral fable or as philosophising text. More, it seems, that her fascination is in finding a way of documenting one particular smalltown life, where American history collides only tangentionally with, and that as this is that of a religious man, that much greater themes, of moral authority, of man's relationship with God, are interweaved carefully with it.

I read the book in several chunks, as the slow languid pace and the elegant prose are richly rewarding, yet aren't necessarily compelling you to turn the page. Its a book of details, many of which are only hinted at, because of Ames being such a careful storyteller. It is neither self-justification or explicit memoir - rather a careful sermonising of a family history by a man who has spent his life reading nuance into the words that he carefully puts together every Sunday for his congregation. Not for the first time, an American fiction that is so based in a devout religious community seems alien to a secular English reader. The fascination in some American - and Irish - fiction with a slightly pre-modern world where the church and its morality are all encompassing has its interest, always, but can also be somewhat inert at times. The book is immaculately put together, never that easy in the epistolery form, yet there are still some problems with it. When John Ames Boughton finally reveals his story, the retelling verbatim by Ames doesn't fit with the roundabout tone of the rest of the novel, and the revelation itself, a somewhat sleight of hand, seems leaden, almost unbelievable in this book's context - its clearly a deux ex machina to bring together an understanding between the two men. That said, its a quiet, powerful novel that I'm sure I'll be thinking about for quite some time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Digital Dark Age

Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet has warned of a "digital dark age." Not because of an anti-technology bent such as you might find in Andrew Keen but because of the pace of change. Technology - and technology devices are moving at such a pace that increasingly we'll find it harder to access the photographs, films and emails that tell our story. In this context the idea of a "dark age" is where future historians have lost the information about our age. The ultimate irony that our information rich age may lead to an unplanned information drought. Few companies survive more than a couple of generations, hardly any for a  hundred years or more. Those future preparations - rich people cryogenically freezing their brains for future revival - are gambles on more than technology, but a faith in a technological progress that history doesn't always identify.

Shelley's classic poem "Ozymandias" with its idol fallen into the sand that has seen an empire perish is the most brilliant invocation of this. Yet Cerf is not a naysayer, he has a possible solution (technological of course), a cloud-based virtualisation of every "player", every software "viewer", so that we can in thirty years - regardless of where it has been moved or passed on  - replicate the experience of opening a JPG or a PDF of Word file.  Backwards compatibility lasts only so long. Even our word files - surely as ubiquitous as anything in the computer world - might find themselves unreadable in Windows 20, or - more likely - Microsoft as a company may have gone the way of DEC or ICL or Mercury Communications.

Anyone who creates for a living should be aware of this - and the idea of digital curation is a really current one - much debated in art and archive circles. This week the magnificent Whitworth art gallery reopens in Manchester - as lovely as the new space is, the true wonder is the Whitworth collection - hidden in basements and vaults. Yet as we move into an age of a reduced public sector what happens to those archives? Nicholson Baker has written eloquently of what happens when you lose the physical object to digitisation - that you also lose the context. That "save" icon on your computer represents a floppy disc that anyone under, oh, twenty five say, will have never seen in real life. Even now we find that old things are being found, which were thought lost, up in attics of houses when someone dies, or forgotten in archives and libraries. Like the reporter searching for the meaning of "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", the sledge with that name on it, could just as easily be put on the fire as the house gets cleared out. As family lines decline or move out to other parts of the world - what do we carry with us? Photographs...memories....letters.... something - but modern life doesn't do too good a job at collecting those. A person's iPod might be a physical replica of their favourite records long after they've gone, but when the machine stops working....

I have a long history of interest in the subject of obsolescence in media. It fascinates me - as it seems that by putting our work down at all, we are creating an impermanent permanence. I am still scarred by a poem that got lost when I was eight years old, the only copy bundled away as my parents got angry at the mess I'd left things in. Since then I've mostly been careful but have had several purges. I used to overwrite cassette tapes not having the spare £1 for a new one.

At least there used to a physical product. A few years ago I realised I'd stopped printing off most of my work - and it just existed on a series of hard disks - and in fear I realised that I wanted a paper copy - I began archiving work to Lulu which allowed me a physical version. These non-books are a personal safety blanket. The thing about digital is that it only exists when there is a second copy - for the stand alone copy is fragile. Yet if you make music what do  you keep? The original tapes/mixes or the just the finished object.

Cerf's plan seems a good one - a cloud virtualisation engine where different versions of software can exist for ever more. I hope he's got a version of an Apricot programme which I wrote my first novel for instance! Of course the digital object is perhaps no more vulnerable than the physical one. The "lost works" of antiquity are many... we don't know if Beowulf is the only story of its kind and quality or one of many, its survival only coming to light in the early 19th century. I suspect it is safe enough now. We then have those handed-down stories, Socrates known through Plato's dialogues, or the New Testament stories from nearly a century after the events, or Franz Xaver von Schönwert's fairytales lost in an archive for 150 years and only recently rediscovered.

Concern over what we have lost are nothing new and imaginative writers have often played with such thoughts - think notably of so many of Borges' short stories - but then again, read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production"  to consider whether we are going backwards or forwards. The specific of digital virtualisation - that it will be the machines or the software that stop us from playing or reading or looking at things we take for granted now - are new, as is the seemingly endless amount of information out there. A few years ago I was at an art group that was clearing out their office as their funding had ended. They had bin bags full of  VHS tapes of short films that had been entered into a festival. I imagine I haven't kept the original letters or original text that was sent in for Lamport Court, the magazine I co-ran ten years or so ago, though some may have survived.

It seems to me there are several layers of archivist. The personal, the public, and the professional. The personal is often the artist (or if we are talking of personal data, the person who stores your family photographs - I bet its your dad). The public is that which exists many times. Surely a record that has been made available in a million copies is unlikely to be forever lost. Then the professional: this blog for instance was being archived by the British Library, though I just checked and they stopped doing so in 2012... did they run out of money? Did my blog stop being important? Who knows? Then there's the Wayback machine which does a phenomenal job of snapshotting the web - will these things survive? And that's before you start talking about the unexpected event - the wars and natural disasters that can take apart even the best laid plans. I read with interest Peggy Guggenheim's autobiography recently where she talked about hiding her collection of art as the war started and then removing it to America as the war ended. This is a mix of the personal and professional. Like the BBC cameramen who kept a tape of David Bowie on Top of the Pops or an old Dr. Who episode - its much harder for things to be lost than you'd think.

Where Cerf is right I think is that a generation now creating and preserving work is not even aware of the limitations of the impermanent. Whereas a writer, painter or musician will have good reason to keep some tabs on their work even if they never look at it again, who now keeps old emails - whether personal or business correspondance. My Gmail goes back nearly ten years now but my Compuserve and Demon and Tiscali accounts before then are long gone. Even this blog - I did attempt to extract it a few times in the past, but if some trick of fate means that Blogger disappears, will I have the energy to find it from some digital archive?

I wrote last year about "the end of memory" - where tasks we used to undertake, such as remembering phone calls and directions, are being replaced by always on immediate technology. Maybe our experiential culture means that we no longer have much time for history. Is this a complacency I wonder? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In our late capitalist consumerist world, Apple or whoever don't want us to be nostalgic - whereas in the 80s and 90s they wanted us to re-buy what we had already had, a continuing repetition of nostalgia, now - whether its the Premier League with its Year Zero approach to past history, or Spotify with its all you can eat buffet of songs from every era without any historical context - nostalgia is only valuable as a product. Remake, remodel indeed. When something doesn't work - Windows 8, Apple TV, Google glasses - they get sent to the dustbin of history. There's always a new piece of kit to be sold to us.

And this is at the heart of things I think - that as we live in an experiential culture where every minute should be filled, we no longer have the necessity to be bored like I was so often as a child, and scarcity which saw me spending hours deciding which particular record to buy or devouring every book as if it was my last, is no longer available to us.  On demand TV, YouTube and everything else provides us with no need to look back. It possibly explains the first person of so much contemporary fiction; and also, when we do look back, whether Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall it is to make history also a product. Taken into the political sphere - a right wing government like the current coalition wants to create a narrative that implies a reduced public sector is the only option; whilst the left struggles with narratives that aren't backward looking. Our Conservatives no longer conserves, our socialists no longer have a collective vision for the future.

An absence of history - at school, in the fast rebuilding/regenerating of city centres and fast growing cities in the far east - seems to suit the relentlessness of contemporary capitalism. In this context complaining to Flickr or Google or Microsoft because they have extinguished our online album, removed the service we stored everything on, seems to place the consumer in the role of curmudgeon. The generation that embraces digital and analogue - my own generation - sits uncomfortably between the two: we haven't the photo albums that our dads kept, at least partly because we haven't always got the shelves or sideboards or lofts to keep them in, but neither have we the insouciance to let the "cloud" take over - that somewhere in the future it will be possible to search out that old photograph, that old email, that needle in the digital haystack.

If it is a digital dark age I think it will be in patches - there are patches we've already lost - and I don't think any preservation programme can really counter our personal and technological flaws. More worrying the movement to private collections via Google books, rather than public libraries and archives which are either no longer funded, overwhelmed with content, or have got rid of the trained staff who can interpret these collections, means that we may well look back at these early days of the 21st century and wonder why nobody noticed.

Monday, February 09, 2015

This Week...

Having quite a few interests means that I sometimes end up with clashes that aren't clashes to anyone else.

This week is a case in point. If you're in Manchester the next few days and feeling cultural then fill your boots.

Wednesday I could split myself in three....


Next Generation Poets at Waterstones 

More poetry... 

The Other Room at the Castle 


Richard Dawson at Soup Kitchen. 

Thursday is of course art night....

Castlefield Gallery Launchpad: For Posterity 

...or photography night

Manchester Modernist Society website launch

...or digital night

Digital Innovation Manchester - The Shed launch  

Friday is a night of Manchester's creative women...

fiction ...

Rosie Garland's "Vixen" at Waterstones

and music....

Jane Weaver at Gullivers (sold out) 

And thats without the Whitworth Gallery relaunch weekend. I was there on Saturday for a "friends and family" night and its already looking very special. 

More stuff next week as well... but that's enough for now!

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Still Appeal of Writing Poetry

As someone who writes I occasionally find myself wondering why I write a particular way or in a particular format. As a lyric poet, poetry causes me some particular challenges. Whereas with fiction I feel able to pull out of the hat a ventriloquism if the story demands it, apart from a few "voiced" pieces, poetry needs to sit with, and sing in your own head and voice. "Finding your voice" is what young poets are told, especially if they are too influenced by a particular model writer. We all have a voice, but it would be absurd to think that each of us can create something unique and lasting. Our fragments come together and more often than not are an accumulation of what we have been reading, or of how we think.

We find our own ancestors of course - and in some ways that's been a little bit of the problem for me with the favourted sons and daughters of contemporary British poetry. There's no Celtic in me, despite red hair, and neither have I ever been particularly entranced by rural England, or the sentimentalised past, or even the present nature. Part of this, probably comes from having a background - in the industrial Midlands - where my grandparents were tenant farmers. There's little sentimentality from me for that life. Besides, born in the 1960s, from an early age I was promised modernities - whether it was gleaming new toys, colour television, the VHS tape or CD, or - as a teenager - new films and music. My world is one different than a generation that had folk memories (or real memories) of a bucolic countryside.

Yet take away nature poetry, take away sentimentality, take away elegy, and a lyric poet isn't left with all that much. I never succumbed too much to the anecdotalism of the New Generation poets either - it seemed a thin gruel (at least in my own seeing, my own life) to write about. A fantasist in my fiction, in the more rarified world of the poem, the temptation is to use the language to dig around your own life, confessionally at first a la Plath, but afterwards, I think, writing a poetry that is from yourself even if not about yourself. It's why discovering "For the Union Dead" by Lowell was so important to me - this was a mini-film; a public poem; a history poem. The American voice - the American line - is one I've been taken with ever since reading Prufrock, or slightly afterwards, Cummings. It doesn't always easily sit with a working class vernacular voice like the one I grew up with. The cadences of the Black Country remain in my thoughts even where they haven't remained in my speech. (And because I was such a constant reader, I don't think I ever read in my head in a parody of Black Country vernacular, my brain was being retaught from the inside.) That said, the demotic voice is one that appeals to me time and again in poetry, whether its the Metaphysicals, Wordsworth and Keats, Louis MacNiece, or Americans like C.K. Williams. Older poets, of course. Partially because its hard to find my "contemporary". Armitage is a couple of years older than me, some of the emerging poets are much younger; those who are at least a decade older than me that make up so much of the poetry establishment, don't seem to be ones I have much time for - like your older brother's Slade records, you probably had to be there at the time.

But I've strayed a bit from what I was wanting to write - which was less about the "fit" but more about the "why?" I sometimes think I write poetry because else where would all that thought and writing that doesn't easily fit into fictional prose go? In other words its a creative medium vast and wide and untravelled enough to always bring me back to it, however lame my particular crossings have made me. I suspect the glitteriness of a good poem is what appeals - whereas a good sentence or a nice story or a powerful piece of prose can be enlightening and invigorating, they can't encapsulate in the same way - they are partial art, to a greater good, a greater aim. This writer, at least, even though I probably share my time (and my gifts) between prose and poetry, continues with the latter because of the possibility in the latter. Probably why I'm never very good at workshopping my poems (whereas I'm happy to workshop prose), there's something unknowable I'm working at: the sense-making of the poetry workshop can sometimes be antithetical to my my effort (though I will probably aim to solve the same problems that they bring up, albeit in my own way.)

For a good poem seems to have a lot going for it, but a lot that needs doing to it. How to come up with an idea that hasn't been expressed before? At least not by me.... How then to find the cadence that will suit the words? How to muddle between the lazy assumptions of an easy lyricism, and the extra mile required to stretch out the line? (I'm not Whitman, I'm not C.K. Williams, neither am I Emily Dickinson or Emily Bronte). The form, then, like a template that you can tweak endlessly, like the three minute pop song, or the  Knock Knock joke. Yet we want to transcend the limitations of the latter - even if we're writing another sonnet. Its a complex recipe, worthy of an Ottolenghi cookbook, and its not surprising that sometimes I find I've not the ingredients, the tools or even the technique. Poetry though is more like a classic dish than something newly minted, and we put our own regional tastes on it. I wrote a poem last year where I compared nationalities via their different types of meatballs - faggots, albondigas, kofte etc. - the House of Babel may have many different languages, but we have a surprising propensity to share variants of our peasant food.

I think the demotic in this instance allows us to pull in the words of now, and has to. An American novel will be packed with brand names, as part of that daily mythologising they do; I distrust a plain poem that has only words that could have equally sat in a 19th century describing, just as I distrust those poetic words that the workshop is so keen on tossing out. I've just got the new biography "Young Eliot" and I look forward to retreading Prufrock and those other early poems, yet reading it as an 18 year old in 1985, it felt like a bygone age, even though I recognised the impulses. Perhaps that unwieldy name? Whatever, our formalism - not just in poetry but in life - separates us out. As I head into my late forties and the poems I write that people prefer are using a type of pseudocode, a knowing appropriation of language (Facebook LIKEs etc.) that I know will as likely be faded into memory in five years as any contemporary references - but these are just sprinkles of coconut on a seventies sweet, that will then brim with nostalgia at some later point.

For sitting down, with an idea, a line, a faithful nine syllable opener "Of course I never sailed to Europe..." I feel the old excitement again: and this poem, this tiny thing, suddenly seems a vast but honourable project. The second verse has already lost the magic of the first, I've already distrusted my poetic instinct in terms of making literal sense, but I'll keep at it... something more than a crossword, less than a cure for cancer, but in a still appealing place in the middle.