"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
click HERE and access his website
Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Losing Israel: Jasmine Donahaye

There's a delightful bird (illustrated on the jacket of this book) called the Palestine sunbird. Or is it? An Israeli twitcher would call it an orange-tufted sunbird.  Even the birds of the air are drawn into the contested space that is Israel/Palestine and it is this world that Jasmine Donahaye explores in this fascinating memoir of her troubled and difficult relationship with modern Israel.

Born in England of parents raised on a very hard line kibbutz (where parents greeted other people's children before their own in order to demonstrate their fealty to collectivism) Donahaye has spent much time in Israel (and California) and now lives in a peaceful but rain-soaked valley in Mid Wales.  This book is the story of her gradual discovery that the narrative of happy enterprising peasant communitarianism promoted by the kibbutz masked another story of the destruction of Arab villages in what is now Israel.  Guided by her mother's revelations, Donahaye returns to Israel with many questions to be answered and the time that interests her is that of the early days of the founding of Israel in the late 1940s when the British Mandate in Palestine was ending.  She learns from historical accounts, archives, maps, that the Arab villages on which the kibbutz-dwellers built were not depopulated by some form of natural wastage or voluntary emigration but their inhabitants were expelled, the names of the villages erased and renamed.

What makes this book so absorbing is the author's unflinching honesty about herself and her Jewish family, its powerful moral clarity never wobbling off into priggish self-righteousness. She simply looks at the evidence and it is unmistakeable. She also has a gift for describing people and places and presenting her conversations in vivid dialogue so what might have been an over-earnest endeavour stays alive and readable. She describes the moment when she first spoke to her mother in Hebrew: "there was a look on her face, in the hesitation before she answered, of nakedness. It felt like a transgression, this entry into who she was not possible except in her first language. It shocked her. It shocked me too. For one unguarded moment her deep past, her buried childhood rushed up in her and responded, and I witnessed it; for a brief moment, before she once again guarded herself, there was an intimacy I had never before known. And then it was gone."  Discovering her family's "culpability in the displacement of Palestinians" she finds eventually that "my sense of who I was came undone".

But it is not a simple matter of going to Israel, finding, on foot, the slight vestiges of the old Arab settlements that were not officially there in the environs of the kibbutz which her grandfather helped to build.  There is a whole family and national history to come to terms with.  Donahaye firmly rebuts the standard charge of "Jewish self-hatred" levelled by the Israeli right when such matters come up. "According to that view, any criticism of Israel is a criticism of your Jewish self, shows a disconnection and corruption in your Jewish core, and yet because I cannot hate my Jewishness, and cannot hate Israel that I feel conflicted." In her lyrical passages about her current Welsh home and about the wonderful richness and variety of Israeli birds which, as a birdwatcher from childhood, she describes so well and so accurately Donahaye is not offering us a 'misery memoir' but she is trying to reverse a process which she calls "telling one story and erasing another".

Has she reached the point suggested by her title?  It is hard to imagine that she would ever, could ever, cut Israel out of her life but: "My country is leaving me because its story is ceasing to exist, and because of what it has strangled out of existence. I grieve the loss, I grieve its departure from me, but it's a grief coloured darkly by shame."

Losing Israel by Jasmine Donahaye is published by Seren (£12.99 hardback).

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Square Eyes: Rosie Millard's New Novel

Rosie Millard at the launch

To Soho for the launch of Rosie Millard's highly entertaining new novel The Square at the House of St Barnabas aka The House of Charity as it was known in the Victorian era.  Under the splendid rococo ceilings even the Bibliophilic Blogger who normally doesn't get out much was seen quaffing beakers of wine (thanks to the kindness of Legend Press in inviting me) and applauding this witty and clear-eyed satire on the life of a London square.  It was the same night as the first episode of Life in Squares, the BBC drama on the Bloomsbury set about which the less said the better. Rosie Millard has a very sharply observant eye for the vagaries of London bourgeois behaviour (she said she started writing by looking out of the window and trying to imagine the life that was going on behind those Georgian facades) and this one will be a perfect summer read as the publishers very properly suggested.

I met one of the author's neighbours from, as Thackeray would have written it, Th**********Square, N*, who said he had asked the author whether he should have brought his libel lawyer with him. She assured him it wouldn't be necessary. In spite of the presence of her children and parents beneath the St Barnabas chandeliers Rosie read some of the mildly naughty bits and a great time was had by all.

The Square by Rosie Millard is published by Legend Press in paperback at £8.99

The calm before the book-signing storm

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why Do You Blog?

Looking at the date of my last blog entry this might seem a question over which a little irony has been scattered.  I do find my posts seem to appear at longer and longer intervals.  A question put to me by a fellow writer in all seriousness when I started blogging was: why do you do it? I can't see the point. Presumably his argument was that a writer should, as Dr Johnson enjoined us, be writing only for money as any professional should.  I do write for money.  I publish books and articles and reviews and the quality, I hope, of what I write here is equal to what I write for 'published' occasions.  So why do it if you are not being paid?

I think payment isn't the issue, rather it is the nature of the writing and whether it is making the impact it should or whether one is merely engaged in a refined form of striking one's head against the wall.  By "impact" I mean doing what writing should do, having some sort of resonance or presence in the larger world, rather than being a silent muttering to oneself.  The evidence is that some people do read one's blog because you get feedback, occasional comments, and even solicitations from publishers and publicists who seem to think you might be a useful vehicle for them.  But things have changed since I first started this blog.  The "intelligent internet" as one might call it has exploded and there is an extraordinary amount of material worth reading (we don't need to add that it jostles against the 90 per cent of drivel).  Only this week I discovered a site new to me called Partisan which seems to be worth anyone's while to read: short, sharp, well-written and pertinent.  The original idea of literary blogs, that they would say the unsayable and be a free critical space in a world of whirling, skirling hype, may have become clouded and many are long-winded, self-referential and otiose, but there is still stuff worth reading.  The problem is the amount of it.

It would be very easy to spend all one's day chasing up links provided by Twitter and many links would reward the effort but when would one have the time to read anything else?  I think most of us are too exhausted by all this matter coming at us to read it all (this being one of the reasons why blog comments have declined in numbers, people are just too overwhelmed by the tidal wave of words to be able to swim against it).  I am constantly surprised by certain active minds on Twitter who seem to be tweeting 24/7 yet who are also writers and poets.  When do they find time actually to write anything?

A key element in literary publishing has always been the editor and editors can often be vexing for writers because they have a habit of saying: no, this will not do.  The internet never says no and all doors are wide open. I am currently reading Eileen Simpson's fascinating memoir of the post-war American poets, Poets in Their Youth (she was married to John Berryman) and their struggle to get past editors and get themselves published is a major theme in the story.  But as readers aren't we  glad that there are some gatekeepers?  The true literarybloghead would say very firmly no.  Gatekeepers are censors, partial or biassed establishment police officers who curb and suppress the free flow of thought and opinion (the latter what really counts for many).  Let a thousand flowers bloom even if some of them are rotting on their stalks.  There is a lot in that but in the end the sheer profusion is self-defeating.  We can't keep up and the jam is, in my view, spread too thinly.

So that is why I do not blog daily, or even weekly.  In fact the chance of monthly would be a fine thing.  I will continue to do so, but I still can't answer my friend's question, and I think I never will: why do you do it?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Talking About Edward Thomas 17 June

I will be talking to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, author of a new biography of Edward Thomas, at an event at the London Review Bookshop on 17th June.

I leave you with a quotation from his fragment of autobiography The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938) where he describes himself as “a citizen’s son of London in the ‘eighties of the nineteenth century".  Reading that book and the biography one realises how much this great celebrant of the English and Welsh countryside was a child of the south London suburbs (and explicitly saw himself as such).

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Rupert Brooke is Dead

The grave of Rupert Brooke on Skyros
This Thursday (23rd April) is (in addition to being Shakespeare's birthday and mine) the 100th anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915.  Probably his most famous words are those about the corner of a foreign field that is for ever England and here it is on the Greek island of Skyros where he died from a blood infection on his way to the Dardanelles.  Plonked in the middle of an olive grove, this marble and wrought iron tomb seems to belong to a home counties churchyard not this plain, rough olive grove on a Greek island and it was a strange experience to visit it back in May 2009.

His obituary in The Times written by Winston Churchill (Brooke was very well-connected) began with a fine rhetorical flourish: "Rupert Brooke is dead."  The Brooke myth was born and the infinitely complex man behind that golden Apollo image remains fascinating.  The poet Isaac Rosenberg (who did not have such famous and influential friends) demurred at Brooke's "begloried sonnets" and I will be exploring some of these aspects of Brooke's reputation in a lecture to the Dymock Poets Association in early October.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

H is for Hare

The first paperback edition 1974
As an article in today's Observer reports, nature writing is the current non-fictional vogue – that is to say articles are written about it in the Observer, its authors are winning prizes, and clone after clone is being born.  There has always been nature-writing and its most famous examples like Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, the nature writing of the Northamptonshire poet and naturalist John Clare or the essays of Edward Thomas (which preceded his emergence as a poet of the First World War) are classics of English literature.

'Nature Writing' (the genre so cleverly mocked in its newspaper Nature Notes manifestation by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop; the twee vocabulary and laughable purple prose) has always been a bit of a hybrid, combining sharp scientific observation of nature in the field with a whole range of personal obsessions from the thought-provoking to the plain dotty.  Even the great Gilbert White was obsessed by the idea that swallows didn't actually migrate in winter but  went into hibernation somewhere not very far away from their spring and summer homes.  Today it is more likely to be holding up the natural world as an alternative to our consumer capitalist obsessions or as a place to soothe our poor, bruised little selves.  Traditional nature writing was not much concerned with the political world (The Natural History of Selborne appeared in 1789, the same year that a certain upheaval took place in France) but today, sharpened by our ecological sense of what we are doing to the natural world, the broader context is unavoidable.

What we might call The New Nature Writing has certainly broadened the scope of the genre in very welcome ways.  It can cover traditional natural history, environmental politics, exploration of urban spaces and edgelands, travel, autobiography and just about anything else.  One of the best of the living British nature writers is Richard Mabey who was quoted in the Observer article as saying: "Nature writing ought to be writing about nature. I'm not sure books about pets ought to qualify, nor do I think books that are principally about the nature of the self ought to qualify."  Mabey doesn't exactly mention H is for Hawk but I think we know which kind of writing he has in mind.  He adds that nature writers should concentrate on being "the translators of the natural world...The highest objective is to let what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms."  I couldn't agree with Mabey more but I don't think that is how many of the New Nature Writers see themselves.

As it happens I had just finished Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk when, by what process of serendipity I don't know, I plucked off my shelf a book that has sat there unread for several years, The Leaping Hare (1972) by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson.  Evans was the author of many books about traditional rural life based, like Ronald Blythe's Akenfield often on oral history interviews (Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay etc etc) and David Thomson is the author of a haunting and beautiful memoir of youth and love in Ireland, Woodbrook (1974).  This is a quite fascinating book about the hare, a creature about which we still don't know everything and which has been mythologised and made strange down the centuries.  The authors tell us about its natural history, its habits and behaviour, the way in which it has been incorporated into myth and legend, its life as the hare-witch of folktale, and so much else.  They have talked to countrymen as well as zoologists and there is nothing about the hare that they seem to have missed.  The contrast between this book of informed and attentive inquiry and Helen Macdonald's part-misery memoir of using the training of a hawk to exorcise her grief is, it seems to me, significant.  There are some similarities.  Both books talk about the history of their subject and the traditions surrounding it, both are based on some real research and thinking about the context in which their subject lives.  But where Evans and Thomson concentrate on telling us as much as it is is possible to know about the hare and its life in our imaginations, Macdonald's obsessive need to talk about herself, and the hawk in relation solely to herself, gets in the way of learning more about the goshawk, the history and practice of falconry, the stories that have grown up around it.  There is too much of the writer (and too many words) and although when she writes directly about her loss of her father she is convincing, honest and moving, as a book about a living creature it cannot compete with the book about the hare.

Of course we cannot be strictly objective.  Like the mediaeval bestiaries which described animals partly in natural history terms, partly in terms of their moral symbolism, and partly in relation to their religious or sacred significance (as when the red breast of the robin is accounted for by its attempt to pluck out the bloody thorns from Christ's calvary crown, a hypothesis that wouldn't cut much ice with Prof. Dawkins) we bring ourselves and our assumptions and our anthropomorphising tendencies to the way we think and write about our fellow creatures.  I have done it myself in my Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos, 2013) where I have implied a moral relationship between humans and animals.  I think it is natural, inevitable, to do this but it works only if we keep our eye firmly on the object and try to learn.

I give the last word to Richard Mabey.  The best nature writing, he says, lets what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms.  I take this to mean that the hare and the hawk are interesting, in the end, for what they are and not solely for the ways in which our ego uses them.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Basil Bunting Award 2015 winner announced

Basil Bunting
The 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry was announced today (Friday 20th March) at the inaugural Newcastle Poetry Festival.  This is the first time I have ever won a poetry competition or indeed any other literary prize in a long writing career (though I achieved second place last month in the inaugural University of Roehampton Ruskin Prize) so it was doubly welcome.  It was also a special pleasure to win a prize named after the poet Basil Bunting, whose work I have long admired.

The £1000 award was announced at the Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 20th March where the winning poem was read out alongside the other shortlisted entries.

I am the author of several poetry collections, the most recent being Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos) and a satire on World War 1 commemoration mania, Trench Feet (Rack).

The prize was awarded for the poem below.


En quoi un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, 
qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre ? 
J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, 
savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas…

I see de Nerval coaxing his lobster,
on a leash of blue ribbon.
He has made his case
for preference of pet:
because it does not bark
and knows the secrets of the sea.

In this morning’s market
the great crustaceans twitch;
a pair of claws squeezes the air;
liquid eels in slippery ranks 
slither on stainless steel;
a salmon sleeps in a drift of ice.

Those bloody aprons, 
that pink tump of guts
coiled like a frivolous dessert,
enforce a preference for
the Bois – poet and homard,
like a pair of lovers, hand in hand.