Saturday, 8 April 2017

A snippet of autobiography

I don’t know why I write. My parents weren’t what you’d call ‘arty’. My mother loved the theatre and painting flowers, but aside from the Desert Island Discs pairing of The Bible and Shakespeare, the books in the living room were mostly by Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes. My father once bought an anthology of “story poems”, but this, it turned out, was because he wanted to learn a stretch of narrative verse to perform at one of the village amateur dramatic society’s music hall evenings. That said, my mother was descended from a family of art dealers and occasionally mentioned a book – a catalogue raisonnĂ© of Dutch and Flemish painters – which one of her forebears had published in the nineteenth century. It was simply known as “the book” and every time it was mentioned she’d wonder who had written it or whether any copies remained extant. My father – who was a flight engineer with what was then BOAC and travelled a lot – also began bringing home paintings by an artist in Tehran. Our living room was slightly unusual in having a portrait of an imam over the fireplace and a winter scene from rural Iran in the hall. When my mother felt like it, we would sometimes take out the complete works of Shakespeare and read plays together, she and I alternating lines. For some reason, she also asked me to write a poem to read out at one of the Christmas parties that they held – largely because everyone else in our street held Christmas parties – and that must have been the first poem I ever wrote. Its rather conventional – and presumably borrowed – gist is that Christmas has lost its meaning and become an orgy of materialism – although reading it now, I can’t help but detect the origins of a much later poem about suburban life, ‘Portishead’.
Whatever its satirical intent, the poem seemed to go down well enough and I wrote another, rather similar one about package holidays for one of my parents’ summer parties – also held because everyone else in our street held summer parties. This would have been when I was around 14 or 15 and writing a novel called ‘It could happen here’ in which my secondary school had become a prison camp. I bashed that out on an old manual typewriter that my father picked up at an auction in Leighton Buzzard. Large sections of the manuscript are in red ink because I never fully mastered how to change the ribbon and had to resort to using the red ribbon when the black one ran out. At some point, I also wrote a poem – plagiarised almost entirely from D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot – called ‘Look, weed entwines in the tide’. My aunt – who worked in a pharmacy in Richmond that was frequented by rock stars on methadone scripts – showed it to someone who was the nephew of someone who was possibly quite important in a major publishing house. Whoever it was detected the DHL and TSE traces immediately, but suggested that, with a bit of practice, I might get the odd poem published somewhere (although not by his major publishing house).
Now eighteen, I went to Australia. I didn’t write anything much while I was there – aside from long, overly detailed letters to my father (so over-detailed that he insisted on several occasions that I fly home immediately) – but once I was back in England, the sparse landscapes around Dubbo in New South Wales and the end-of-the-road atmosphere in Cairns in Queensland (not then a go-to holiday destination) started making demands. Somehow I had to make sense of those places and writing about them seemed to be the only way to do it. I’m sure that I didn’t do them justice, but those flat horizons with intermittent trees, the smouldering tail-ends of bush fires and the St Andrew’s Cross spiders clacking their legs like knitting needles above us on a terrace in northern Queensland were probably what started this whole business of thinking that it’s possible to make small corners of sense in the world.

Tom Phillips

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

European Union

At first it might have been coincidence
that we heard so many car horns
shifting through the Doppler effect,
or checked in at hotels where girls
in Sunday best held hands and sang
interminable folk tunes.

Only, the following day, new couples
emerged from a scaffolded church
with candles lit, and family groups
assembled in a park for photographs
where filigree blossom coincidentally
obscured the Stalinist backdrop.

Thirty, forty weddings eased
from municipal ceremonies to pose
beneath late-flowering cherry trees,
anticipated pleasures, and advice
they’d hardly need, being of an age
when all has seemed so changed.

Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove-grey dresses. 

Tom Phillips
From Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Some various things

Recent online publications, in short:

Eight poems translated into Bulgarian by Bozhil Hristov and published in Literaturen Vestnik in Sofia:

Confessions of a rooky translator at Versopolis:

A poem in London Grip:

Two poems in Snakeskin:

A paper on writing and place from our conference in Montenegro in June:

And coming soon ... Balkan Poetry Today #1:

Saturday, 24 December 2016

The year of sharp contrasts

At the end of last year, the aftermath of Sanctum – that extraordinary month of performance in Bristol – and the prospect of regular teaching and subbing work for the first half of 2016 prompted a tentatively optimistic view of the year to come. Twelve months later, it seems that even such tentative optimism was slightly naĂ¯ve. That’s not to say that 2016 has been relentlessly miserable, but the highs and lows have come in rapid succession. Indeed, I’d be hard-pressed to remember a year of such sharp contrasts.

There was certainly none sharper than going to bed in Montenegro on Thursday 23 June after the first-night dinner of an academic conference I’d co-organised, feeling confident that, despite the hateful rhetoric and flagrant lies of the Leave campaign, there wouldn’t be a majority vote for Brexit, only to be woken at 6am by a text from my wife which told me all I needed – but didn’t want – to hear. It read simply: ‘I can’t speak.’ My happiness at being back in the Balkans for the first time in two years, at having introduced two friends and colleagues from the UK to the region and at meeting again with good friends in Montenegro dissolved into a feeling somewhere between jet-lag and grief, physical disorientation and emotional shock. Curious aftershocks rippled through the remaining two days I was away: gallows humour; abrupt and unprompted tirades; a conviction that the result had been misreported; a conviction that this couldn’t be the result because all three of us on the trip to Montenegro had voted Remain by post or proxy; a particularly horrible stomach bug which poleaxed me on the final evening. It didn’t ruin the rest of the conference or the day out to the seaside which followed, but it certainly made any feelings of satisfaction or happiness seem compensatory, even escapist.

I didn’t have much opportunity to get used to this new version of ‘home’, where, it seemed, it was now socially acceptable to shout at ‘foreigners’ on the bus or daub racist graffiti on community centres. By the beginning of August, I was back in SE Europe, this time as a translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House. This also happened to coincide with the publication of my first book in Bulgaria – Nepoznati Prevodi/Unknown Translations, a collection of poems which I wrote as exercises while I was learning the Bulgarian language. It was a month spent translating poetry and drama, meeting and befriending some of Bulgaria’s finest writers and renewing my acquaintance with one of my favourite cities. It seemed entirely appropriate that the launch of Unknown Translations was hosted by Vasilena, the student who’d asked me three years previously if I’d ever been to Bulgaria and unwittingly set in train the events which led to my publishing a book in Bulgarian, while any semblance of stiff upper lip disappeared when her sister Marina presented me with the original drawing she’d made for the cover. Marina, Vasilena and I had set up the online project Colourful Star in early 2014, but the book launch was the first time that all three of us had been in the same room since we’d originally discussed the project on my first trip to Sofia in 2013. By the end of the month, too, the conversations I was having with my wife on Facebook every night had led to our reaching a decision we’d been considering for some time: we would move to Bulgaria in September 2017.

With this decision made, the idea of returning to Brexit Britain seemed at least bearable because only temporary. Even so it took me even longer to reacclimatize than it did after previous Balkan ventures – and that process was elongated even further by the second blow of 2016’s political double whammy: the election of Trump.

It’s only possible to speculate about what will come of this, but as the year reaches its end, the current triumph of the incompetent, the idiotic and the megalomaniac doesn’t inspire confidence. Perhaps the key hope is that this is the last flailing of the generation whose first step was to bring us Thatcherism, Reaganomics and the whole neo-con shebang and that when all the people who voted for Brexit and Trump discover that they too are going to be locked out of the global elite’s gated community (along with all those they currently choose to despise), perhaps they’ll have a change of heart.

In such circumstances, it seems almost facile to end with anything other than a gloomy outlook, but these are the circumstances too in which all we can really do is find compensation where we can. As Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Thanks to John Fru Jones for the picture from the launch of 'Unknown Translations'

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Georgi Gospodinov: God of Berlin

In the aftermath of the Berlin attack, WN Herbert's excellent New Boots and Pantisocracies blog is featuring the great Bulgarian poet and novelist Georgi Gospodinov's elegiac poem 'God of Berlin'. You can read this and my translation of it here.

Monday, 19 December 2016


The year’s worn out.
Just look at it.
A tent’s gone up
on a brownfield site
and that’s where
its days are lived out.

A cracked-screen phone
plays Bowie and Cohen.
It’s sprayed ‘Br’
in front of the exit sign.

It’s horrified
by its own ambitions.
It never meant
to end up
with a can of Natch,
bloodshot eyeballs,
a damp and dogged rollie.

Under the charred canopy
of a petrol station,
it’s hurling itself
at passers-by.
It wants to be loved.

Across the street,
in the fishtank offices,
its progeny swim
to the surface
and bite at it
with gaping mouths.

Tom Phillips 

Friday, 16 December 2016

It was 28 years ago (or thereabouts)

It was 22 July 1988 and Tribune published my first ever music column ... The Fall, Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Wire ...

By way of introduction to a regular stroll through Musicland, a round-up of the last 12 months seems to be in order. Somewhere in the future 1987-1988 may well go down in a Zimmerman Study Center thesis as the time when the collective eardrums were assaulted by the likes of Bros, Tiffany and countless joke raps from the other side of tat. What next? A Bay City Rollers revival?

Of course, the big names – Springsteen, Dire Straits etc – have gone on consolidating their “mature” period rock – but you don’t want to hear about them … do you?

More interesting by far were The Fall on television covering a Kinks song and appearing in the Smash Hits sticker collection. After “Victoria”’s success you might expect these self-styled outsiders to release an appropriately “accessible” album. But no, The Frenz Experiment, released earlier this year, still has Mark Smith sounding like he’s reporting back from some unspecified reconnaissance mission. With its sixties feel it could be the soundtrack from a cult thriller.

In a similarly esoteric vein, Tom Waits’ musical Frank’s Wild Years has all the brilliance of his last quirky masterpiece, Rain Dogs – and the strangled Sinatra pastiche on “I’ll Take New York” makes it worth every penny.

Staying with America for a while, Talking Heads’ Naked moves them back away from the mid-West of True Stories, picking up some of the African feel of their earlier records and splicing it in with what often sounds suspiciously like the theme from Shaft. Unlike The Style Council’s dodgy attempts at seventies soul, Naked’s strength lies in the tension playing between the horn section and David Byrne’s ever-more-adaptable voice.

On the other hand, the staunch efforts of organisations like WOMAD are starting to shift popular music’s American-European axis. Right now it’s the West African sound that’s strongest. Mali has suddenly put itself on the world music map in a big way. Two very different albums, Salif Keita’s Soro and Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach show why. And at this year’s WOMAD Festival in August, you can hear another innovative Malian talent, Ali Farka Toure. The WOMAD line-up is extraordinarily diverse – ranging from old post-punk Pere Ubu to a Bulgarian wedding orchestra. No doubt this will bring further slices of world music cake into the record shops come autumn.

Meanwhile, something seems set, with the release of the Substance compilation, for that Joy Division revival we’ve all been waiting for. But a few other seventies faces have been popping up as well. Mick Jones seems on the point of renewed popularity with B.A.D.’s Tighten Up Vol. 88, while old pal Joe Strummer is currently rocking against the rich with The Latino Rockabilly War. But rest assured that the last of the punk idealists are said to be earning but a pittance from The Story of the Clash Vol. 1. Seeing as they’ve crammed just about every decent song they ever recorded onto Vol. 1, Vol. 2 hardly seems a likely future release.

Another band enjoying a revival is Wire. Last seen in Europe working with bands like Belgium’s Front 242, Wire have bounced back into obscurity with two albums in the last nine months. Somehow they’ve managed to keep their eccentric charm without sounding left behind by the younger techno whizz kids. Now part of the Mute records success story (along with Nick Cave, Erasure and Depeche Mode), Wire are only one of a whole batch of independent bands on the up and up: The Darling Buds, McCarthy and The Wedding Present being other notable examples.

And for those who find even The Cure’s gloom thrash on their Kiss Me double album too poppy and lightweight, there’s always the recent releases from Sisters of Mercy and The Jesus and Mary Chain to give consolation.

Then, of course, The Smiths broke up leaving behind Strangeways, Here We Come and Morrissey, the solo artiste – is this man destined to become the Sting of the cardigan set? But even he was beaten to the punch for lyric of the year. That must go to Lloyd Cole for the casual way he drops in, “If you’re looking for an early grave, Mr Anderton will lead you to it”, towards the end of The Commotions’ otherwise mixed bag, Mainstream.

Add all this to a renewed interest in jazz thanks to Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine, the deserved success of Tracy Chapman and some good honest pop from Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout and Voice of the Beehive and I guess it hasn’t been such a bad year – no matter what sickly goo continues to drool its way up the Top 40. And if you’re looking for a couple of singles to brighten up the summer you couldn’t buy better than The Specials’ update of “Free Nelson Mandela” or “Fiesta” by The Pogues – and dance those Tory third term blues away.

Published in Tribune, 22/7/1988