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 naïve. 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

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Colourful Star

Just a brief reminder really that the joint online project Colourful Star which we set up in January 2014 continues to post new poem/painting collaborations every Friday. You'll find the latest one by clicking here - combining a painting by the artist Marina Shiderova and a poem about a cherry tree in Bristol, it seems to be proving one of our more popular posts.
You'll also find more than 120 others, should you feel inclined, while there's also a brief explanatory text about the project and a page to mark our 100th post last year.

Monday, 2 May 2016

A selfish grief

The light today is Atlantic.
It pares the horizontals
and blazons backyards.
It has a sharpness
about it that refutes
the possibility of escape
into hidden garden corners.

Wherever we look,
we're exposed – at odds
with ourselves, picked out
like negatives of photographs
that one day might be developed
(although that now too is an image
which makes no sense).

Beyond the silhouette of myself,
cars gleam like beached whales
and clouds make their own shadow.
And here again I’m at another loss,
remembering a selfish grief,
the words that were said and weren’t
in a room that stinks of aftermath.

We were making apologies
to each other on the sofa
which my father’s cousin found
at least a moment’s respite on.
Outside, the gulls flexed
and then disappeared
into the bevelled blue and white
of a horizon cut along
the far edge of the sea.

Tom Phillips

Monday, 21 March 2016

Creative writing

Dictionaries and guides and books
I can’t yet read are mounting up,
closing in with their unknown spaces.
My desk is a shambles. There’s nowt
in poetry (as has been said before) –
though sticking at it might bring
the kind of small change you get
from a corner shop in a different city.

Each stab at it is like running across
a contested traffic junction, trying
to buy a rail ticket in a language
that’s not your own. Occasionally,
you have to put your foot down
and there it is in every casual remark.

Tom Phillips

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Walking along the high street
beside posters for films
I’ll never watch,
I saw the crimson wing
of a butterfly like a splash
of sunlight, a stain of blood.

Already its lustre
had disappeared
and nobody stopped –
or stooped –
to pick it like a flower.

It fell from the sky
but nonetheless survived
a thousand footsteps.

Tom Phillips

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The signs along the road

There’s something awry.
I’m coughing more than usual
and undergrowth leaf edges
are pale with blight. It’s spring
over half the continent
but shifting patterns deliver
cloudbanks only
and cold hard fronts.
We’re watching pictures
of chapped fingers hooked
through steel lattice,
unfurling rolls of wire,
some kind of bodying forth
at a convenient distance.
Or misplacing them back
into memories we’d thought
were past their sell-by date.

There’s something awry.
On flat plasma screens
tomorrow's forgotten articulate
stories that will be there
to be unearthed in future times.
For the moment, the hot air condenses
over lecterns, in passport offices,
across the lens of a camera.

Over woods that embroider
the foreshortened horizon,
buzzards or some other birds of prey
circle like lonely wolves.
Someone has spent half a day
putting up a sign to warn
of an underground infiltration tank.
There’s something awry.

Tom Phillips

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

From Aylesbury to Bowie

Strange when someone like Bowie dies. It takes a while for it to sink in – not just the news, the raw fact of his death, but the significance of his work to the culture as a whole and indeed personally. I mean I always considered him to be a major figure, but the coverage of his death around the world has shown that his cultural significance extended way beyond whatever importance I might have attached to him as a musical innovator, writer/performer/producer, unwitting soundtracker to significant parts of my life. And maybe that was one of his great skills – despite the theatricality and the make-up sheen, whatever he was up to seemed to be directed at you (or at least the narcissistic bit of you that could believe that).
Or maybe that’s just me. I was nowt but a nipper, after all, when I saw what we’d now call the video for ‘Space Oddity’ on the telly and, drenched in the enthusiasm for the Apollo space missions, the line ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ couldn’t help but grab the attention of a kid who’d stayed up to watch the moon landing and who also happened to be called Tom. 
Cut to teenage years and, already hooked up to Bowie by the older kids with glam-trews and copies of ‘Ziggy Stardust ...’ and the even older kids with proto-beards and copies of ‘Hunky Dory’, there’s the rumour that the market square in the opening line of ‘Five Years’ is the very one I’ve been studiously hanging around in an ex-BOAC official issue mac. Bowie, no less, has written a song about Aylesbury Market Square. OK, it’s about the imminent death of the planet, but it’s still Aylesbury Market Square. The people crying/dying are, like, my parents and stuff. What’s more, he’s been a regular at Friars, the club we’ve been sneaking into for the last few years, borrowing other people’s birth dates so we can answer the ‘Are you 16?’ question with impunity or, at least, sheer gall. Our generation was too late for him, though. He was off in Berlin by that stage – though he probably turned up for some of the Iggy Pop gigs we got into (or so we’d like to believe – who was that bloke in the long overcoat and the bleached hair?). Not surprising, perhaps, that Friars is leading the charge to have a statue of him put up in that very market square.
Near-misses aside, two other things have come to mind since Monday morning. That I probably wouldn’t have read William S Burroughs without having heard ‘Life on Mars’ (because of the cut-ups) and I probably wouldn’t have spent the last 10 years writing about eastern Europe without having heard ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘The Lodger’ (or known about all that the ‘Berlin trilogy’ entailed). 
And I just thought he was a bloke whose records I bought.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Winter afternoon

Today my brain weighs
heavy in my skull.
Thunder and lightning
disturb the sky
like children playing
by a war memorial.

The cranes of a new town
survey the squares

which they will destroy.