Friday, 17 December 2010

Some holiday snaps

The misery of having a parent who's a putative travel writer

An unexpected top-of-the-crag moment above Hebden Bridge

The pub which my family used to run in Cambridge

Ontroerend Goed: Internal

Seeing as the secret's out, here's some thoughts, originally written in May 2010, about being immersed in Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed's piece 'Internal' as part of Mayfest in Bristol.

I’ve felt angry, exhilarated, depressed, delirious, panicked, betrayed, exploited, joyous and I haven’t been able to talk or think about much else for more than a week. If you were one of the people who went to Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed’s ‘Internal’ during Mayfest, you’ll probably know what I mean. If you didn’t, here’s what happened...
The ‘show’ (that’s not quite the word but it’ll have to do) only lasted 25 minutes and was for an audience of five. The gist of it was that, via an intense and nerve-wracking line-up, each of the actors paired off with a member of the audience and took their ‘partner’ to a candlelit booth. I was chosen by a very attractive woman called Maria. She poured me a shot of vodka and we talked. I confidently told her that I’ve been with the same partner for 25 years. We discussed the importance of friendship. I said something about being a writer and interested in what other people have to say. It seemed hilariously funny that my favourite town in the world was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. As a finale, she asked me to close my eyes and take her on an imaginary journey. We ‘went’ to a lake in Slovenia. It seemed innocent enough, even the bit where I conceded that we were touching and “maybe” we were kissing (but not in that way, pervs).
Shortly after, everyone emerged from their respective booths and all ten of us sat in a circle. Actors talked about their partners. The speed date became group therapy. Maria said some very flattering things about me and described our ‘journey’ to Slovenia, ramping up the kissing bit and adding in a sunset. Other encounters hadn’t been so successful, it seemed: one actor confessed to feeling that he’d not been able to “get through” to his partner while in another of the booths there’d been no conversation at all. Someone (an actor) noticed that Maria and I were sitting in identical poses. Another actor asked his partner if she’d “hold” him. She refused, on the entirely reasonable grounds that she’d only just met him and hardly knew him. At some point, the actress from the silent pair, stood up and bared her breasts. “Is this what you wanted to see?” she asked. “No,” said her partner, looking terrified.
After that, I felt faintly relieved. Compared with what happened to the others, my conversation with Maria seemed entirely normal and sane. Then the two of us became the focus of attention. I was asked (by another actor) if I thought that we’d “clicked”. I said “Yes”. Why wouldn’t I? Maria and I had got on. We’d had a chat, shared a laugh, made a toast to friendship. “Prove it!” said the other actor, quite aggressively. I looked blank. How on earth do you do that? Before I could think, Maria had opened her arms and she was kissing me. Warmly. On the lips. Suddenly, I was emotional jelly: euphoric as a 17-year-old who’s just copped off with the best-looking girl in school. Then Maria very matter-of-factly announced to everyone that I’d been with my partner for 25 years. Ouch. Somehow this metaphorical slap across the chops didn’t stop me giving her my address. She wanted, she said, to write me a letter.
And that was it. Or so it seemed. Outside, the audience chatted. We all agreed that it had been a slightly unusual experience and everybody was too polite to mention that I’d just shown myself to be a narcissistic slut by kissing a stranger who’d been nice to me. I went home, joked about having been “seduced by an attractive Belgian” and wrote up my review for Venue. Job done.
Only then the aftershocks started. Not for nothing is the show called ‘Internal’: it doesn’t happen in a theatre, it happens in your head. No matter how often you remind yourself that it really was “just a performance” and that, in my case, Maria was a ‘persona’ who was simply doling out flattery, you can’t escape the niggling thought that, maybe, just maybe, there was the glimmer of something real going on (not sexual, I hasten to add: the kiss, after all, was out of kilter with the rest of our conversation) - or the knowledge that, after 20-odd years of marriage, you’ve got the moral fibre of a pot plant. Hence the need to talk about it, especially with people who’ve been through the same encounter (not everyone got a kiss, it transpires; some got an abrupt and seriously cold cold shoulder), and to read everything about ‘Internal’ on the web, from glowing reviews to excoriating rants about Ontroerend Goed unethically ‘betraying’ their audience.
Even now I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, I’m exhilarated by the emotions it’s sparked off (“I’ve never seen you so animated about anything - you’re usually so bloody cynical,” said one mate while I bored him to tears with yet another attempt at interpreting what had happened) and I’m impressed by the degree of risk the actors exposed themselves to (there are, let’s not forget, plenty of predatory stalkers out there, as they apparently discovered when they ran the show in Edinburgh). On the other, I’m depressed at discovering the extent of my own gullible cupidity and sporadically angry that some manipulative actors lured me so easily into a tender trap to make what seems to have been a some kind of point about identity theory or sexual politics (men can’t deal with it when they’re not in control maybe).
Either way, I’ve certainly never had this kind of fall-out from a piece of theatre before and while a lot of other art makes big claims about being challenging and life-changing (on the press release at least), none of it has come close to seriously fucking with my head. ‘Internal’ definitely did that, and while it’s obvious that it all hinged on some subtle and not-so-subtle psychological trickery (body language-echoing poses and the like), it’s still niggling away, a worm in my sub-conscious. When, exactly, did everything turn weird and manipulative? How did I let myself become an emotional adolescent? Why the fuck can’t I stop thinking about it?
The answer to that last one at least does now seem fairly obvious: it’s because this play still doesn’t have an ending. Act One was the conversation in the booth; Act Two was the group therapy session. Act Three so far has been all those slightly excruciating moments of frustration, exhilaration, sadness and anxiety, the long conversations with friends and my wife, and, erm, a letter from Maria.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting that. It arrived, handwritten, a couple of days ago but doesn’t really clear much up. Its friendly tone seems to be ‘real’ but it’s presumably still part of the ‘show’. For a while it simply puzzled me. Now, though, I realise that as well as being a kind of thank-you note, it’s also an inspired gesture. With a return address scribbled on the back of the envelope, it’s my invitation to write the final scene. Curiously, after reducing me to grade-A twatishness, Ontroerend Goed have handed me the baton. Perhaps that’s why when someone asked me if I regretted getting myself embroiled in this (let’s not forget it) performance, I said: “No, no, not at all. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Now all I’ve got to do is work out what to say to bring Act Three to a close.

This piece was originally published in Venue magazine, May 2010,

Two New Poems

Making things up

Out of this slicing gale, as we might call it,
blowing in from imaginary wastelands,
ruffled snow and ice patches accumulate
beside disputed parking spaces.
Words have brought me so far –
and then the weather conditions –
I’m almost at a loss for things to say.

In this warmth, then, uncertain reticence
amongst those who would be merely
speaking their minds. What do I know
of ordinary heroism? The late shift?
Awkward emotional tectonics?
I am only ever looking on
at the clarity of arrival.

Above the Calder

For L. S. Kimberley

The world, it seems, will not have much truck with poets.
Inadvertently taking a path up the crag above Hebden Bridge,
our triangulation points were the Brontës in Haworth,
Ted Hughes in Mytholmroyd and Sylvia Plath in Hepstonstall.

‘The sluttiest sheep in England’ posed for photographs
and there was something on the air which tasted like words.
The whole sky opened up like a chorus: church spires,
industrial behemoths, the impervious valley below.

We were lost amongst blackthorns crowding the ridge
until hen harriers’ fleeting screeches on granite
drew us back to our right of way through pylons,
phone aerials and nestled gardens of the village.

Beyond the remains of a church, across the lane,
the graveyard prickled with crosses, weeds and epitaphs.
Finally, this was hers. And yet here,
while wind scoured hard at what we thought to say,

even here, her own lines were waiting to escape
from silence into meaning. They persist,
and in persisting enter the brimming flow
into which, not far downstream, we’ll cast our own.

Both these poems were written for Imagine Fromeside, a two-day event at a Bristol clinic which also saw the launch of 'Selected Poems' by L S Kimberley, a Trinidadian-born poet published by Stepping Out and Dreamweavers who is currently one of the clinic's residents.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Seven years after the Gulf

There are words we would rather skirt around.
Every day the sky becomes an excuse,
or appears to consist of an arrangement
of ducks on sloping cobbles,
that thing you talked of last night.

There was nothing to be said, for example,
which might not offend at this table.
We were only hypothesising, weren’t we,
about a society of amputation,
the whole bloody foreign situation?

At the turn of the road – rage
between drivers who, moments ago,
had never encountered each other.
From here, from this angle,
the phrase ‘Everything is wrong’
behaves like a cliché, precisely.
It contains a would-be full stop
and an effortless change of gear:
the bottle reached for from the mat
and fingerprints on the neck
just above the label.

So say it, go on: beyond those willows,
how easy it might have been
to dissolve whatever was happening elsewhere
in the drawn-out fade of a sunset.

Tom Phillips 2010

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Continuing the Gjirokastra theme

The poem below, 'In The Citadel', refers to one of the odder remnants of the Cold War: a 'captured' USAAF Lockheed jet fighter which is still on display in the citadel of the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra. There's a picture of it here (not taken by me). There are various conflicting stories about how it got there - these range from it having been shot down by either the Albanian air force or anti-aircraft fire (which would have been difficult, seeing as Albania had no ground-based air defences at the time) to it having landed at Tirana airport following a navigational error by the pilot.
What does seem to be certain is that, in December 1957, the pilot, Howard J Curran, strayed into Albanian airspace twice. According to the American version of the story, he was taking the Lockheed T-33 from Chateauroux airbase in France to Naples in Italy when, thanks to a combination of bad weather and instrument failure, he arrived over Albania by mistake. Running out of fuel, he searched for a nearby airfield and spotted what was, in fact, the as-yet incomplete Tirana International Airport. Once on the ground, he was promptly arrested and taken away for interrogation. In yet another version of the story, his arrival was greeted by a chain-gang cheering political prisoners who were working on the airport's new runway at the time and assumed that the plane heralded a full-scale American invasion of the country and therefore the end of Enver Hoxha's totalitarian regime.
Several accounts of this 'incident' claim that what became of Curran is 'unknown' (the implication being that, rather like Michael Caine in the film version of The Ipcress File, he was held prisoner by the Albanians and brainwashed) but his release and return to the USA via Yugoslavia was reported in Life magazine in January 1958 (see here). His aeroplane, meanwhile, was kept by the Albanians - on the pretext that it had lost a tyre on landing and they couldn't replace it - and taken to Gjirokastra citadel to become part of Hoxha's 'trophy cabinet' of captured military equipment (a selection of Italian howitzers and a tank from the Second World War - all of which are also still on display in the citadel).
Whether Curran really had made some grievous errors or not is a matter of debate. Tirana is a long way from Naples, Curran himself was an extremely experienced pilot - a Second World War and Korean War 'flying ace' - and, of course, America wouldn't have been keen to admit that it was flying reconnaissance missions over Albania at the time. That said, the coasts of Albania and western Italy follow nearly parallel bearings, and if he was flying without instruments, Curran might well have mistaken the one for the other.
Either way, the Lockheed remains at Gjirokastra (although most of its moveable parts had been removed by the time I saw it in 2006), an unlikely memorial to the Cold War.
Howard Curran himself died in August last year and his obituary, including a short version of the Albanian 'interlude', is posted here.
One reason for posting this and the poem below is that Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (see post re: his recent Lerici Pea Prize). Kadare's most famous novel, The General of the Dead Army, was inspired by a statue of 'Mother Albania' in the Military Museum inside Gjirokastra citadel (it shows Albania sending both the Nazis and the Italians packing, their arms weighed down by skulls), while one of his most lyrical, Chronicle in Stone, offers a child's eye view of the city during the Second World War - and, as a results, gives an illuminating insight into the follies and horrors of war in general.
Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, and although the plinth where a gigantic statue of the 'heroic leader' once tood now lies empty and looks, from the citadel walls, like a redundant heliport, the house where he was born has been turned into an 'ethnic museum'. The Kadare family house, meanwhile, has yet to be 'museum-ified', possibly because, as the Albanian who took me to Gjirokastra phlegmatically observed, "we won't know what we think of him until he dies".

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In the Citadel

Above so much traditional stone housing
squatting into the mountainside,
the football stadium and a hexagonal blank
like a heliport (the emptied plinth
of a statue which surveyed far more
than it would ever command),
we are stepping over shed fuel tanks
to photograph the captured plane.

Downed in the Cold War,
by whatever means, it sits now
on a lawn on the edge of a rampart,
its turbine an empty mouth,
its stripped-out cockpit open.
We take turns to stand
with kids on the wing
while tourists from elsewhere
count medieval cannon.

Not far west of Gjirokaster
lies Hamara, Saranda, the Adriatic,
beyond that the Mediterranean,
and, beyond that, the Atlantic.
Sometime in the 1950s,
a Lockheed strayed off course.

Driving down white marbled streets
where celebratory excuses are enough
for men who shouldered state relics
all the way up to the citadel,
we’re turning out onto the plain,
disputed territory not that long ago,
where old simplicities ended.

News re: Albania

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has won this year's Lerici Pea Poetry prize. This may come as something to a surprise to readers in Britain since, here, he's only really known for novels such as The Successor (which won the Booker Man International Prize), The Siege, The General of the Dead Army, The Ghost Rider etc.
Kadare, however, has published a series of poetry collections in Albanian, including several career-spanning 'selecteds'. Some of these have been translated into French as part of an ongoing translation of his collected works (and, given the origin of this latest prize, some have also presumably been rendered in Italian) but the only samples I can find translated into English are a good but modest group on Robert Elsie's site. These and some very rudimentary readings of his poetry in Albanian suggest that, unsurprisingly, this strand of his work demonstrates similar qualities to his prose - clarity, precision, allusiveness, versatility - and to the poetry of other European late-modernists.
More than anything, perhaps, the awarding of this prize is a reminder that, even though a dozen of his novels have been translated into English, these only represent a tiny proportion of Kadare's work (his novels, poetry, essays etc occupy two whole bookcases in the International Bookshop in Tirana); that the proportion of Albanian literature in general which has been translated into English is even smaller (although again Elsie's site has a good selection, as well as details of other Albanian translations which have been published); and that even when an individual writer or an entire literary culture appears to be well-represented in translation, the translated works rarely represent more than the very tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The other question which this award raises relates to Kadare's prospects as a putative Nobel laureate. His name has been 'connected' with the Nobel Prize on several occasions but the truth is he remains a controversial figure, both in Albania and South Eastern Europe as a whole, largely because of his ambiguous departure from Albania to live in Paris immediately after the end of communism and because of his perspective on Kosovo. You can get a flavour of the controversy at the LRB's website from this letter and my response, originally published three years ago.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Guns and butter

A couple of music reviews

First - Pere Ubu at Bath's Komedia:

There’s an air of self-fulfilling prophecy about this. Having named Cleveland, Ohio’s original avant-garage band after Alfred Jarry’s monstrous theatrical creation back in 1975, here’s David Thomas ‘playing’ the character of Pere Ubu himself in a Brechtian performance art panto that’s Greil Marcus’s theory about punk having pinched its best ideas from Dada brought to life. In short, it’s quite brilliant - an unlikely music/theatre adventure that veers from the sublime to the ridiculous via spasming dancers, dropped scenes, temper tantrums, theremin-garnished atmospherics, sock puppets, farting and spacey animation from the Brothers Quay. Astonishingly, it manages both to put across the gist of Jarry’s deliriously satirical 1896 play and feature some of the most joyously rebarbative music that Pere Ubu (the band) have made since their ‘Dub Housing’/‘New Picnic Time’ rule-shredding heyday. Sound arrives in slabs and moods, sporadically coalescing into plot-related songs called things like ‘March of Greed’ and ‘Big Sombrero’, while, hip flask in hand, Thomas himself lurches and swaggers (or lies down full length, wearing a nightcap), purring, growling and yelping through dialogue and lyrics alike, a cross between Tom Waits, William Burroughs and that slightly disturbing but twinkly-eyed uncle who grandpa should have kept locked in the basement. When they’re not beating conventional three-chord rock into disorienting new shapes like demented blacksmiths reinventing the horseshoe, his musical ‘minions’ swap instruments for chicken masks and sacks to join in the ‘action’ as everything from Polish peasants to Ubu’s nemesis Captain Ordura (in a fetching frock). It’s funny, garbled, fucked-up, stupid, great - antidotal evidence that, with the appropriate chutzpah and humour, you can do something different with the basic gig format without ending up with Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower. Or with a lecture on rainforests by Sting (subject here to a withering ad hoc caricature). That, for afters, we get ten or so minutes of ‘pure’ Ubu - including an out-of-the-blue, full-on blast through previously-deemed-controversial second ever single ‘Final Solution’ - is merely yer proverbial cake icing. We leave Mr Thomas, perched on the front of the stage, good-humouredly flogging CDs from a cardboard box.

Second - Public Image Ltd at Bristol's O2 Academy

Rumours that J Lydon Esq has mellowed with age (and advertising income) have been greatly exaggerated. There’s nothing remotely mellow – or buttery – about the way PiL tear into savage lament ‘Death Disco’ and messianic diatribe ‘Religion’. Or about a two-hour set which, as well as ticking off ‘Memories’, ‘Flowers of Romance’, ‘Don’t Ask Me’ and the other ‘hits’ (term used advisedly), snares a pugilistic ‘Chant’, a slow-burning, Penetration-esque ‘Psychopath’ and an epic and rancorously mournful ‘Albatross’. True, this version of the band leaves fewer loose ends than the Levene/Wobble-staffed original and only ‘Four Enclosed Walls’ actively threatens to collapse into atonal clatter, but the oh-so-effective combination of lolloping, dubbed-up bass, hard-as-nails drumming and top-end-shredding guitar patented on ‘Metal Box’ is very much in evidence. Even ‘recent’ tracks – i.e. those written 20-odd, rather than 30, years ago – get the treatment and sound all the better for it, the likes of ‘Tie Me to the Length of That’ and ‘USLS1’ given the kind of strung-out spaciness they were begging for. As for Lydon himself, he’s in fine form. He might look like a costive cocktail barista these days but he still sounds like a cross between an irate muezzin and a pregnant teenager, swooping from irritated nasal whine to portentous declamation (“The priests are coming – lock up your children”) in the blink of a chord change. Whatever his off-stage, panto dame-like posturing for the benefit of ‘I’m a Celebrity’, Country Life and the tabloids, when it comes to PiL and these songs of love, rage, terrorism and death, he does, it seems, still mean it (man). A post-ciggy encore sees what Mrs Venue insists on calling ‘the mush pit’ nostalgically pogoing to ‘Public Image’, ‘Rise’ and the discoid whelp of ‘Open Up’ but, for yours truly, it’s the early-on poise and swagger of ‘Poptones’ what done it. Anger and beauty – now there’s a thing.

Originally published by Venue magazine in Bristol, see ffi

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

A small item of news

From 9-12 November, if you happen to be in Bristol, you can see a new, large-cast play which I've been commissioned to write by Ship & Castle Theatre Company and whose slightly cumbersome title-in-progress is 'The Few (More Than We Expected)' - a title which began as a throwaway joke relating to the size of the cast but has now become, thanks to the wonders of a Facebook page, inscribed in (virtual) stone. For the time being at least.
Based on the stories of thirty-odd people living on and around an airfield 'somewhere in southern England' during the summer of 1940 and the Battle of Britain, it's docu-drama meets all-embracing community theatre meets ENSA touring party. It's also from the same company who produced 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (four stars in Venue, eight/ten in the Evening Post, Rose Bowl award and nominations).
Scenes from the play will also be performed at the Colston Hall on 6 Nov as part of the annual Festival of Remembrance.
Naturally, I haven't finished writing the script yet.
Details of how to book are on the Facebook page:

Saturday, 21 August 2010

In the City Museum

In the City Museum

The great lunge
of paint across canvas
draws requisite attention
from students, tourists,
connoisseurs etc.

Cage's 4' 33 reiterates
traffic harmonies.
We are impeccable:
expansion of the object
not representing,
development of subject.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Hawkers: a story

Hawkers built his own bungalow. Or rather he got his ‘lads’ to do it. It was about the only thing he didn’t buy out of a catalogue. Instead, at the end of every working day, he loaded half-a-dozen Poles from his casual payroll into a van and drove them out to the village where they put in four hours of what he described as ‘bonus time’. They didn’t seem to mind; they worked weekends, too. He paid them in cash and they set about putting up walls, laying down floors, tiling roofs and installing pipes and wiring. When they’d finished, Hawkers brought in a crate of beer and the Polish guys paraded around their boss’s new six-bedroom home, wondering at its magnificence. Outside, the garden seemed a veritable paradise which stretched gently down towards a river. Opening fresh cans of own-brand lager, they stood on the pile of rubble which would one day become a patio and admired the muddy quagmire which would one day become a lawn. “Good enough for croquet,” said Hawkers, although he didn’t really know much about croquet, except that it was a game you played on lawns.
The village was less impressed with Hawkers’ mansion. In the saloon bar of the Pheasant, it was referred to as “the monstrosity” and its lion’s head gate posts and array of faux marble Venuses were described as “impossibly vulgar”. Hawkers was surprised, not so much by the fact that they didn’t appreciate his good taste as by their willingness to repeat these calumnies while he was in earshot. Hawkers had always understood that people in villages were too polite to voice an opinion. And yet here he was, the self-made man, the mansion builder, the recipient of grotesque slurs.
He should have expected it, of course. He knew that his kind of money was slightly different from the kind of money which had bought his neighbours’ tastefully converted barns and renovated cottages. They weren’t gentry, by any stretch of the imagination, but his ‘new’ money was even newer than theirs and so could be frowned on from the relative safety of a £150,000-a-year salary from an ‘old’ city firm or law company. The ‘old’ money lived on but only in the half-ruined manor house which, as Hawkers was never to know, would be snapped up by a developer and turned into six luxury apartments for rent to corporate high-flyers.
Clearly, Hawkers was not ‘one of them’. He’d grown up on an estate at the fraying margins of the city, in a block of flats ringed with bypasses where the only signs of economic activity were the teenage boys lurking on the staircases hissing ‘wananysmack?’. His only assets hadn’t been a degree from Cambridge and a portfolio of low-risk equities but stubbornness, stamina and a naivety which bordered on stupidity. Early in his career, this combination meant that, of all the labourers on the city’s building sites, he was the one who readily volunteered for the jobs that nobody else wanted and applied himself with a vigour that couldn’t escape the foreman’s notice. He was both as dumb and as strong as the proverbial ox and was always the last to be kicked off a site when the work was coming to an end. Being stupid also meant that he didn’t know how to spend money and he soon built up a tidy sum.
It was his father who told him what to do: “Get off your arse and set yourself up in business.” It was the only time Hawkers did anything remotely intelligent. As a self-employed builder, he was even more successful than before and he could soon afford to take on his own labourers and rent an office where, instead of lugging hods and hurling scaff poles around, he sat on the end of a phone securing ever more lucrative contracts. In short, he turned himself into Hawkers, the self-made man and mansion builder, and his firm was regularly hired for prestige jobs in the city centre.
He deserved, he felt, his own place in the country. The bungalow was his reward and to hell with the neighbours. Let them criticise his lion’s head gate posts! Let them pour scorn on his faux marble Venuses! He had more than a dozen men who called him ‘boss’, ‘chief’ and – his own personal favourite – ‘captain’, and a car which outperformed all the others in the village (except in terms of fuel consumption).
And so, whether it was because he genuinely didn’t care any more or because he cared more than he knew, Hawkers began to buy things. He wasn’t very good at it. The only things he’d ever really bought before were either to do with the building trade – bricks, sand, joists, tiles – or his hardly extensive leisure activities – the occasional Queen CD or a copy of Busty Babes. Going into shops made him feel dizzy and sick. But what did that matter? He could order just about anything from a catalogue or the internet. Within weeks, he was running up the biggest bills the manager of Argos had ever seen. Every morning Hawkers was woken by the high-pitched bleat of a truck reversing into his drive. And it wasn’t just from Argos. As his confidence grew, he branched out, calling in massive orders to Ikea, Comet and even Habitat and John Lewis. He took delivery of widescreen, high-definition televisions, state-of-the-art washing machines, gas cookers, microwaves, beds, carpets, dining tables, armchairs, sofas…. All chosen on the strength of the tiny photographs printed in catalogues or posted on a website. Sometimes his choices clashed a little but, on the whole, Hawkers was very pleased with his purchases. Naturally, waiting in every day for deliveries and then having to find places to put them once they’d arrived meant that he had less time to spend at the office but that didn’t seem to matter. The money still rolled in from the big city-centre developers. In the evenings, Hawkers checked his online bank account and then wandered through his mansion, noting down each new purchase on his domestic inventory.
Then – and Hawkers was never sure why this happened – he stopped. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any more space: the bungalow had so many rooms his spree could have gone for months. It wasn’t that he was satisfied, glutted with new possessions like a man who’s just finished a seven-course banquet. On the contrary, in fact, and to his immense surprise, Hawkers found himself feeling less satisfied, less happy. What was missing? Not being someone for lengthy reflection, he rapidly came to the conclusion that what he needed now was a wife. What’s more, this need, too, could be met by catalogues, admittedly not the sort you picked up in Argos or Ikea, but the ones you could find on the internet at helpfully blatant addresses like Russian Brides or Macedonian Virgins.
Unlike his other purchases – some of which had been injudicious; the giant pasta making machine which now filled half his walk-in kitchen cupboard, for example – Hawkers decided this was one he wouldn’t rush. He dedicated an entire weekend, in fact, to examining numerous thumbprint photographs. For a while, he toyed with the idea of a Thai bride. They, after all, were renowned for their obedience and athleticism. But Hawkers went off the idea when he imagined what the villagers would think if he turned up with a diminutive Thai woman on his arm. They would know he had bought her off the internet, and even though he professed not to give a damn about what they thought, he did draw the line at giving them the opportunity for sexual mockery. Instead, he turned to eastern Europe and, more specifically, Poland. He’d always got on with the Poles and, he reasoned, if he got on with the ones who worked for him, he was sure to get on with their female equivalent. Poland was also part of the EU and that would cut out a lot of irritating paperwork. By Sunday night, he’d sent a tentative email to a woman called Suzanna who lived in Krakow. According to her ‘notes’, she was seven years younger than Hawkers, liked birdwatching (an unlikely hobby, Hawkers thought, but never mind) and was a devoted follower of “your English ‘Big Brother’”. Judging from the slightly blurred photo on the website, she also had enormous breasts. Hawkers was amazed when she replied within the hour to say that she had always dreamt of marrying a successful English businessman and that, yes, she would come for “a visit”. As it happened, her brother was driving to England soon and would bring her to the “very beautiful English village where you reside”. She had, she added, no concerns about marrying someone she had never met because she knew that all English gentlemen were generous, considerate and “not particularly demanding in the bedroom department”. If this last comment gave Hawkers any concern whatsoever, it was rapidly dispelled by the thought that he was possibly going to marry a handsomely endowed twenty-six-year-old whose only vice appeared to be ornithology.
It took Suzanna somewhat longer than expected to arrive. Several months passed, in fact, before the long-awaited announcement came: “My brother and I leave tomorrow.” In the meantime, Hawkers had been able to get to know Suzanna a little better. She was, her emails informed him, a former student of economics, had had a bad experience with one of her lecturers, was an enthusiastic, though not necessarily always successful cook, wanted to learn more about English manners and could play “one simple piece by our Chopin” on the piano. Hawkers also received a new photograph which he found engaging, albeit unnerving. The shaved head of a middle-aged man was reflected in the mirror behind Suzanna’s half-naked body. Perhaps her father had been keen to help her cement her new relationship.
Again unexpectedly, it took Suzanna and her brother another three weeks to reach England from Krakow. They arrived without any warning in the middle of the night. The village’s canine population set up a fearful howling as a knackered Fiat coughed and spluttered into Hawkers’ drive. Lights went on in the neighbouring cottages and accountants tutted at the sight of the half-dressed Suzanna and her thuggish-looking brother advancing on Hawkers’ front door. Word that Hawkers’ money had come from dealings with Russian gangsters started spreading as soon as it was light.
Hawkers greeted Suzanna with an enthusiastic hug which, he noticed, didn’t seem to go down particularly well with her brother, who, he was surprised to learn, would be staying while his sister “settled in”. Not wishing to upset his putative bride the instant she came through the door, Hawkers agreed to this arrangement and set about showing Suzanna the house. She seemed favourably impressed but, pleading fatigue, wondered if he wouldn’t mind if she slept on her own this first night. Hawkers showed Suzanna to one of the spare rooms and her brother to another.
“We go ‘good night’ now,” said Suzanna, dryly, and she disappeared into her room. The brother stayed out in the corridor with Hawkers. He seemed unusually concerned with his sister’s wellbeing.
“You fuck her up,” he menaced, “and I fuck you up, OK?”
Given that the brother looked as if he could readily deliver a very nasty fucking up, Hawkers nodded and retreated to his room. He decided that this wasn’t the raving of a demented psychopath but merely an example of the Polish way of doing things. This allowed him to sleep deeply enough not to be disturbed by the faint knocking sound coming from the far end of the corridor.
Refreshed and reinvigorated, Suzanna was a different person in the morning. The brother seemed exhausted. The rigours of the journey must have finally caught up with him. Suzanna, meanwhile, insisted on a proper tour of the house and dished out a steady stream of ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ at the many pieces of limited edition furniture and expensive hi-tech gadgetry. Naturally, Hawkers also took the opportunity to appraise his bride-to-be and decided that she was, indeed, precisely the kind of woman he was looking for. She was practical, enthusiastic and, above all, curvaceous. In short, when the brother asked whether what he rather disconcertingly referred to as “the deal” was on, Hawkers said that it most certainly was and agreed to hand over five hundred pounds as a contribution towards the expenses incurred during the journey to England. The brother pocketed the money and, contrary to his earlier suggestion that he stay, immediately got into the Fiat and noisily departed.
These were to be the happiest weeks of Hawkers’ life. Suzanna brought numerous improvements to his existence – breakfast in bed, ushering him off to work on time, greeting him with a cheery grin when he came home and solicitously helping with his paperwork in the evenings. Sexually, perhaps, Hawkers was a little disappointed but Suzanna explained her reluctance to go beyond some perfunctory mutual masturbation as being the result of her innate shyness, the bad experience with her university lecturer and her disorientation at having moved so rapidly from Krakow to the beauty and tranquillity of the English countryside.
Eventually, the time came for Hawkers to formalise the wedding arrangements. Suzanna seemed uninterested in the details and allowed him to carry on without voicing any kind of opinion, apart from on the subject of the honeymoon. Hawkers opted for a quick registry office job followed by a fortnight in Spain. He had been thinking about an on-the-beach wedding in the Caribbean but Suzanna said that that was too far and it would be better if they stayed in Europe, specifically the European Union.
When the big day came, Suzanna climbed into the taxi with Hawkers. She was wearing an off-the-peg dress from Primark and clutching an unexpectedly small ‘going away’ bag. Hawkers had bought a new suit which, he thought, made him look rakish. Suzanna stared out of the car window all the way to the registry office.
Witnessed by a couple of Poles Hawkers had dragged off the building site (with whom Suzanna refused to converse on the grounds that they were “mere workmen”), the ceremony didn’t take long and they emerged into the drizzle a few minutes later, a married couple. Suzanna and Hawkers marked the occasion with vodkas in the nearest pub before heading for the airport and their flight to Alicante.
The honeymoon passed conventionally enough. Hawkers was pleased to discover that the effects of the bad experience with the university lecturer seemed to have worn off. He spent large amounts of time sleeping on the beach while Suzanna, dressed in the new, skimpy bikini she got him to buy her in the hotel boutique, sat at the beach bar, talking to the clean-cut lads who, she claimed, were war heroes from Iraq. On their final night in Spain, Hawkers was vaguely shocked when she didn’t reappear in their room until four in the morning.
When they arrived back home and were turning into his drive, Hawkers noticed two things: the absence of one of his lion’s head gate posts and the presence of the knackered-looking Fiat. Suzanna’s brother had returned.
“He looks after house while we’re away,” said Suzanna. “Kind, yes?”
Hawkers agreed that it was, indeed, kind but something about the missing gate post worried him. He opened the front door and found the brother heaving a large – and very expensive – Welsh dresser along the hall towards the back garden. Plates tumbled from it and smashed on the floor. The dresser appeared to be one of the few remaining items of furniture in the bungalow.
“What the hell….?”
It was the one but last phrase that Hawkers was to utter. The very final one came a few seconds later, after he had been walloped on the head by a large piece of masonry and heard the brother shout “Give it to him again, Sue” in a decidedly English accent: “So you’re not even fucking Polish!”
Hawkers died with the lion’s head gate post embedded in his skull.
“Bollocks, I must have hit him too hard,” said Sue, formerly Suzanna, now also resorting to her native accent.
“He’s dead?”
“As a fucking doornail.”
Pat, formerly the brother, took decisive action. Abandoning the dresser, he dragged Hawkers out into the back garden, propped him against a large pile of catalogue furniture he’d spent several days constructing, poured petrol over the lot and set fire to it. Hawkers slowly blistered, charred and blackened.
“What the fuck are you doing, Pat?” shouted Sue through the kitchen window when she noticed the twenty-foot flames.
“Burning the bastard. Got to get rid of him somehow. You can say he just disappeared in Spain. Left you in the lurch.”
“But I thought we were going to sell that lot?” said Sue, pointing at the blazing furniture.
“That? That’s the stuff I couldn’t get rid of. That’s just crap from catalogues.”
By the following morning, Hawkers, the self-made man, the mansion builder, was a small cloud of ash blowing gently across his garden and speckling the surface of the river below.

Tom Phillips 2008-10

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Eyewear posting

Short piece about American band Violent Femmes by yours truly newly posted at Eyewear -

Monday, 7 June 2010

Poem Train Passing

Train passing

On a cold hot day, when clouds and breeze
from the sea leave only sheltered corners
to sun that does more than warm the skin,
it might be possible to find something
like a particular gap in a dry stone wall
or the rhythm of a specific line of trees
which, for the moment, appears identical
with how it felt to be standing, looking
at some trees, a wall, in the summer
you would rather be remembering.

On a reservoir’s artificial shore, for instance,
you'd been fishing overnight, keeping
yourselves from sleeping with passions
imagined for the girl next door.
And had there really been a party where,
strewn across a lawn, you’d been alone
with whoever is was had lain
across your lap and casually said
if it wasn’t for your mutual friend
she would have loved you instead?

You doubt it now, of course. Such seasons
came and went in twilight possibility,
fruit-pickers arranged across an orchard
that smelt sharp-sweet of fallen apples,
combines thrashing over ripened fields,
a slow, exploratory kiss beside allotments -
and beyond all that the sound you do recall:
the shuck, the rattle of a Glasgow express.

May 2010, originally circulated via Various Artists

Poem: Boundary Crossing

Boundary crossing

You know and I know that here, at this candlelit table,
what’s being said can have no consequence:
to get so far we’ve passed through many hands.
I’m in yours now, and taken back to moments
I’d otherwise be wary of: potential, spilled
beans and glimpses of a parallel life.

Are you for real? Of course you’re not.
This talk is all there ever is between us.
We laugh. You say the right things.
Another elsewhere disappears from view.
For a second, I almost catch your eye.
At the door you seem hesitant when saying goodbye.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Stone Platoon (new version)

The Stone Platoon

How else to look at this fountain
with adjacent memorial statues?
Drizzle’s left droplets finding paths
through embossed verdigris,
such-and-such a name who fell.
I’m not close enough to make
more of others’ particular loss
in whichever battle or campaign.
The stone platoon endures
inclement weather, helmeted,
bayonets fixed at thickening air.

Remembrance Sunday every year
we'd stand with such indifference:
dragooned Boy Scouts in the breeze
which furled around a cenotaph.
We’d put up with it, out of respect –
although, eventually, out of respect,
we’d be prone to goose bumps,
laughter and knocked knees.

Here, though, are three historians
come to read blurred epitaphs
for losses in some foreign field.
What could it be to them,
in any event, who died
and who came home again?
Their silence affects some care
as, beneath a sun-split sky,
they line up for a photograph
before those who, in memoriam there,
did the best they could have done.

April 2010, originally circulated by Various Artists, May 2010

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Stone Platoon

How else to look at this fountain
with adjacent memorial statues?
Drizzle’s left droplets finding paths
through embossed verdigris,
such-and-such a name who fell.
I’m not close enough to make more
of others’ particular loss
in whichever battle or campaign.
The stone platoon endures
inclement weather, helmeted,
bayonets fixed at the clear air.

Remembrance Sunday every year
we'd stand with such indifference.
Dragooned Boy Scouts in the breeze
which furled around a cenotaph.
We’d put up with it, out of respect –
although, eventually, out of respect,
we’d be prone to goose bumps,
unkind laughter and knocked knees.

Here now though are historians:
three men at the foot of a lion.
What it might have meant at one time
flashes out into the sun-split sky.
Corporate call-centre managers
clinch photographs of those
who, in memoriam there, did
the best they could have done.

Friday, 16 April 2010

More obscure moments in the life of a home counties teenager

Thanks, then, to YouTube, here are some more links which might help to explain what has gone before...!v=_q3TiwBBDmc&feature=related Orange Juice from the days when it was possible to make videos involving both dansette-style record players and the hammer & sickle Possibly the only pop song ever written about post-structuralism - Scritti Politti are in love with Jacques Derrida Slightly disturbing interpretation possibly by Japanese film-makers and definitely unofficial video to go with the Violent Femmes's 'Add It Up'. This one's a slightly (but not much) less disturbing version:!v=xmo6qyhdav8&feature=related Arguably the reason the hideous distortion afforded the word 'indie' by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol is such a thorn in the side of anyone born before about 1985. And Roddy Frame in his finest form. God knows where they filmed this but it's definitely a snippet of one of punk's most underrated bands in full flow Magazine sing 'Model Worker' in Los Angeles. No irony required. "I need a holiday, I've not been well..."

Poem: War and Concrete

War and concrete

Stories, cupolas bulge in these fields
we're passing through: these infamous
bunkers ranked across strategic slopes
refuse to let history disperse.
Stubborn, they endure at roadsides,
in vineyards, gardens, the city’s asphalt brink.
Goats graze along their silted mouths
and, garishly painted, one would draw
in clients for a rash and hasty tattoo.

Just when you think you’ve forgotten
the landscape’s overlaid again
with a grid of war and concrete
giants might use for stepping stones.
Too solid ruins outdo grey crags
where beech woods sheltered partisans.
Sunk shafts and gun-slits mark
a whole world gone. Count fifty
and you’ve barely even started.

It took an old Chinese tank to drag
one clear of sodden sand at Vlora,
and 800 Euros to dismantle it.
Elsewhere, too, you might have read
of how, to turn a dictator’s scheme
into this geometric, defensive terrain,
the architect became the first test case,
emerging from the shelled prototype,
deafened, unspeakably loyal, triumphant.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

This be the book

Whatever your interest, whether it be French beaches, critical theory or military history, architecture, anthropology or poetry, you should probably spend at least one rain-drenched day sitting in a layby reading Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology - almost certainly the finest book about WW2 bunkers ever written and possibly one of the best books about war, culture and concrete as well.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Quotation: Hugh of St Victor

"The person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place."
From Hugh of St Victor's 'Didascalicon', a philosophical text from the 12th century - and a favourite quotation of Edward Said.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Poem: Commuters


Cormorants each morning
awkwardly assume position
on this tongue of pile and lathes.
Marching past, we seem to share
a momentary recognition
of their surprise, their shrug
at our rhythmic passage
across the bridge. They hang
from imaginary coat hangers,
wings out, beaks up, eyes bright.
They are unoiled, unsleeked.
The man in front breaks step.
He stops to look. These cormorants
is how he might possibly put it.
Already, perhaps, that’s reading
too much into it. From one end
of the long straight harbour
the sunlight is all reflection
to the other. It’s spring.
The cormorants gorge on fish.
One day soon they’ll go
and no one will stop to look
for another season.

Tom Phillips

Friday, 5 March 2010

On literature festivals

I might well be reading too much into this but at the last literature festival I went to I got a serious ticking off. “Excuse me! You can’t stand there! You’re in the way of celebrities!”
Alas, between me and the shelves of books that I wanted to look at there was Harry Hill’s glistening head, 200 punters clutching his ‘Ulysses’-rivalling tome ‘Harry Hill’s TV Burp’ and an irate assistant from a certain high street bookshop that’s put numerous independents out of business and now only sells what an HQ marketing twonk decides will shift units from the 3-4-2 tables. My crime, it seems, was wanting to buy some books: my mistake was that ‘literature’ might involve something a tad more interesting than Cherie Blair’s excruciating confessional.
To be honest, it’s partly my fault. In the 80s, when I was a student and a university could still make front-page news if one of its junior lecturers got outed as a structuralist (i.e. they wore a leather jacket, used words like ‘deconstruction’ and quoted French people), ‘literature’ meant something quite specific: it was books by dead white men that took more than 20 minutes to read. Nobody went into bookshops unless they had to and the library was the last redoubt of the scoundrel (who usually wore an Oxfam corduroy jacket). This was clearly wrong, and so anyone with more than half a brain cell or something other than a career in management consultancy in mind started badgering English departments from Inverness to Brighton to let students write essays about books by people who were alive, weren’t necessarily white and were quite often female. It all seemed terribly right-on and a much-needed blow for cultural democracy.
What nobody counted on, of course, was that, thanks to this campaign for what lefties used to call ‘pluralism’, the girth of this newly democratic idea of ‘literature’ would slowly and steadily expand to the point at which you could shove anything at all inside its saggy waistband. That TV tie-ins (mostly produced by white middle-class folk) would shoulder-charges books that are actually worth reading off the bookshop shelves; that so-called literature festivals would become nothing but junkets for momentary celebrities and journalists stapling together their daily spew into 80,000-word miscellanies; and that, were it not for Amazon, it would be almost impossible to buy anything book-shaped that wasn’t written by Michael Palin, JK Rowling or Gordon Ramsay.
And the reason for this descent into scarcely comprehensible prose and books with more pictures (or recipes or downhome philosophy) than sense? Well, not some kind of universal dumbing down certainly. Rather it’s due to the discovery by corporate booksellers, probably in the early 90s, that the stuff they were accustomed to flog as trash in ‘dump bins’ (say, whatever happened to the 99p dump bin?) could be relocated to tables, branded ‘bestsellers’ and sold for £19.99 a time - with a considerably bigger profit. As in eastern Europe, the coming of democracy turned out to be an open invitation for unchecked capitalism to fuck things up. Like an old East Berliner suffering from ostalgie, you can’t help but walk through a bookshop or a literature festival now without feeling that something essential’s been lost.
So what to do? Well, one suggestion I’d make (other than only buying books from charity shops and the internet on the strength of what your mates have told you) is to go to literature festivals and ask every line-up of so-called ‘authors’ (the Hills and Blairs and Ramsays of this world) some rudimentary technical questions - the kind of thing that even GCSE classes in creative writing dismiss before they start churning out their duplicate Carver short stories - and see how they get on. What, for example, is Harry Hill’s relationship with his narratorial voice? And how has Cherie Blair approached the problem of self-authentication inherent in post-modernist life-writing? The telling thing, of course, is that these semi-literate dorks will try to answer your questions. The genuine writers will simply tell you to sling your hook.

This was originally published in Venue magazine, February 2010

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Todd Swift review

REVIEW Todd Swift mainstream love hotel (tall-lighthouse, ISBN 978 1 904551 54 6, £8)

One of the many pleasures to be had from Todd Swift’s new poetry collection – his first to be published in Britain – is coming across honed, almost aphoristic lines which crystallise the themes explored throughout this inventive and wide-ranging book. In ‘Lighthouse’, for instance, we’re advised that “It is a good reader that stays in for winter” – one of mainstream love hotel’s many reflections on the business of reading and writing, and, indeed, one of several nods to T.S. Eliot (in this case The Waste Land’s “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter”) – while, in ‘Itineraries’, “There is no place too small/for some of us to travel to” is as good a summation as any of Swift’s roving interests and his ability to detect significance in the seemingly insignificant and obscure. Whether during a flaneur’s stroll through the streets of Paris (‘French poem’) or transferring old vinyl records onto “the thin silver thing” in ‘London Records’, he is a tireless recorder of arcane detail.
Geographically speaking, in fact, mainstream love hotel is as restlessly cosmopolitan as the Canadian-born poet’s previous collections – the four published by DC Books in Montreal and 2008’s Seaway from Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. As well as London and France, we might be in Japan, Greece, Vermont, the Arctic, the Caribbean or Canada – the latter, most notably, in the dense, cross-cutting narratives of ‘Canadian fictions’, with its cargo ships, “parched lives” and “many loves looked away from”.
Similarly, Swift continues to range confidently across contemporary culture, referencing Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and the Ting Tings, Christine Keeler, ‘Spider-Man 2’ and Californian architect Pierre Koenig, amongst others, and take a delight in words which, in ‘Ice-shelf loss’, breaks out in playful riot – “kill a beer. Hunt a bear./Wear a pelt, pellet an appellate//court; court an Inuit; cut/a house of ice from a sneer;” – or, in ‘Freaks’, acquires the Heaney-esque heft of “Having stalled, out-skirted, they surge and swarm,/clot-kick the mud, swear in vain, their caravans/legless in the dew-smacked ditch...”.
If, however, this territory and its techniques will be familiar to those who have read Swift’s earlier books, mainstream love hotel embraces a new and curious paradox. On the one hand, it sees him pushing further towards finding forms and language adequate to “gross truths”, “nature’s crazed potential” and “modernity’s delights” – as in the surreal tilt of ‘Warrington Crescent’ or the twisting, Prynne-like ‘Light Sweet Crude’. On the other, it is cut through with melancholic writerly doubt – the “unmade novels” of ‘Canadian fictions’, the “scarred seeds [which] litter paper” in ‘November’ and, perhaps most poignantly, the book’s almost-defeated last line: “or is it just sighing and whim?” The paradox, of course, is that it is precisely this tension between verbal adventure and the possibility of failure and loss which gives the book much of its energy.
As the poems in the latter half of Seaway hinted, then, Swift is now engaged on a new phase of his genuinely experimental enterprise. His capacity for both vertiginous widescreen imagery and almost recklessly intimate observation is intact but in mainstream love hotel he works across an even broader formal range and delves into fresh linguistic seams. Intellectually and imaginatively rich, this is also a collection which, for all its mental and emotional complexities, is characterised by moments of stark lucidity (see ‘At twilight’, quoted in full below) that are as telling as anything this versatile and accomplished poet has written to date.

At twilight

no one else but a girl
on the bicycle

turning out of dark
from the corner

the second time
she cycles the block

a thin spoke of light
is broken alongside –

a rushing –
as of great distances.

Review by Tom Phillips, 2010

Brno photographs

Brno, Czech Republic, summer 2007

Brno's 'new constructions' just visible through the mist

Brno's Cathedral of St Peter and Paul

A curious memorial outside the cathedral

The so-called Dragon of Brno at the Town Hall: nobody's sure how it got there.

The Hotel Avion

It's not every day you find that you've inadvertently stayed in an historical monument but my friend Alex (see Vrsovice Daily blog link just over there) has pointed out that the Hotel Avion in Brno in the Czech Republic has just been listed as one. This is where we stayed, with him, en route by rail to Transylvania in 2007. At the time, the hotel staff didn't seem to be particularly used to having guests, several floors housing dining rooms, ballrooms etc were unused and the interior decor (complete with rather ominous-looking leatherclad doors) clearly hadn't been changed since the communist era. Breakfast was served in the pizza parlour next door.

Brno is proud of its Austro-Hungarian, cubist and communist architectural heritage: the avant-garde architect Jiri Kroha (who, amongst other things, designed a 'perfect socialist town' and a new waterfront development for Prague - neither of which were built) is amongst its most famous former residents, while even the ring of dense communist-era towerblocks around the city inspired the tourist office to come up with the slogan 'Brno welcomes you with new constructions'.
The original plans for the Hotel Avion along with several photographs of it in its 1920s heyday are on display in the museum of Brno inside Castle Spilberk - the museum requires considerable stamina as it is, to say the least, extensive.

Poem: The Breakage Suite

The Breakage Suite

Whenever you came home, there
was always something to mend
or tinker with. The disembowelled
washing machine’s rubber guts
coiled out from an unhinged panel,
bleeding milky water.
Rewired, retuned, a radio
cut in on your modest ta-da.
Nothing went back to the shop.
Spare parts that would come in handy
one day cluttered chests of drawers.

Somewhere around this time
there would have been rumours
of strikes, a change of government.
You visited the Ideal Home,
brought back the textured sofa
we sat on through the power cuts.


Further into this same age was said
to be only just beginning,
the soft taps momentarily halt.
My daughter calls me in
to diagnose frozen windows
on the laptop’s screen.
A glitch, a virus, I’ve no idea.
Warranties expired the other week.
Together we wait on an error report.


It’s the closest I’ve come
to turning back: Euston Station
through the window of a cab.
As if fifty minutes up the line
there'd be spark plugs in the sink
and her exasperation.
There’s nothing I could do.
What kind of fix were we in?
The glass and steel remain
inscrutable as circuit board.

Under skies that thin to brightness
by this concrete plaza’s to-and-froing,
we might have been speaking
of watch repairs. Only now,
as time changes gear
into the traffic’s thawing,
we have other things on our mind,
another elsewhere into which we’re going.

Tom Phillips
Feb 2010
Previously published online with Various Artists

Monday, 1 February 2010

Poem: Note


I can only hope
in speaking to you
that you’re the kind of person
who’ll forgive my presumption
in imagining you to be
the kind of person who’ll forgive
my presumption in imagining you at all.

Tom Phillips
Feb 2010

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Marxist Leninism on the silver screen

During the communist period, the Albanian state produced a wide range of propaganda, for both internal and external consumption. The link below is to a clip on YouTube from an Italian documentary called 'Albania - il paese di fronte' ('Albania - the country opposite') which includes several examples, including a Radio Tirana broadcast, a particularly peculiar film about WW2 partisans (a variant on the 'Valkyrie' sequence from 'Apocalypse Now' involving a loudspeaker strapped to a bus and some dancing Italians), some 'racy' communist-era jazz and a ballet written for Enver Hoxha's atheism campaign. It's quite tricky to follow if you don't speak Italian but the images speak pretty much for themselves.

Should this whet your appetite, the remaining ten parts of the documentary are also on YouTube and include footage of, amongst other things, King Zog and his wedding, the Italian invasion in 1939, Mayday parades, Khruschev planting a tree in Tirana, Enver Hoxha dancing with a Chinese delegation and, in the final instalment, the toppling of Hoxha's statue during the anti-communist revolution in 1991.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Two revised poems

The Air Display

Jetstream mirage and the taste of kerosene
is how it might start across the field,
or a Hawker Hunter hanging on a stall turn,
its chevron tailfin roundel against clouds.
Armed with bulbous candyfloss,
we’re walking between disputes,
provenance issues, these tanks
too often repaired, no longer ‘authentic’.
Redundant fighters’ afterburners sear
the early afternoon like rough nostalgia,
aerobatics over middle England.

And still it is easier to find a name
for Venom, Tempest, Fury
or how we might be expected to feel
about splintered tree-lines,
sand-bursts across that combat zone,
than for patterns of thought
in these actually occurring vapour trails
which backdrop one last fly-past:
impervious Spitfire, engine growling,
over woods and out of the sun.

Beginning with Palma

This is where a poem might start out,
here, on this terrace curtained with rain,
a Mediterranean afternoon
stifling with sweat and Ducados.
The cathedral’s too drab for a ticket
(history priced out of the market)
and you won’t find time to trace
intermittent carnival noise
to its roiling, gaudy source.

So never mind that you can’t recall
the word for it or put a name
to that face which insolently
stares from each window you look in.
Those booted boys – or others –
will be there the same tomorrow,
conveniently just out of focus,
details for your composition,
sketches for your Hemingway phase.

Is this boredom or fear? On the far side
of the rain, the Guardia Civil
patrol a cobbled, almost-empty street.
Keep your eyes peeled, they’d suggest.
You have, of course, and found them wanting.
The carnival’s moved on. Would you reach
for coins left lying on the ground?
You might do, if it didn’t mean
leaning over, wetting your hand.

Tom Phillips

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Poem: Catching the Drift

Catching the Drift

Collared by its spectral bridge, the bay’s incursion
narrows to a creek, these tongues of sand
where mist-wreathed skiff masts lie at odds
among the trees. “The well-to-do,” you say
and point at the far shore’s terraced villas.
What else to add? It wasn’t to be
that you’d put your name to such deeds
would allow you such possession.

Only here, on this shack’s uneven planks,
the morning’s steeped in diesel fumes,
or whatever else that smell might be,
and flies, perplexed by angling lures,
are seething on lopped fish-heads,
grounds for some complaint, perhaps,
were that your way. We push out
the boat instead, catching the drift

which squirls at fallen branches,
knots of weed, the sure-footed bridge’s
concrete stanchions, then thickens
to an estuary. If the jetstreams
unfurling north and east
register as promises, promises
made at one time to yourself,
there’s not a sign in your straight gaze.

Tom Philliips