Saturday, 25 August 2012

Orwell on statues

I don't know what George Orwell would have made of the fact that the outgoing director general of the BBC apparently vetoed the siting of a proposed statue of him outside Broadcasting House because he was 'too left wing'. We do know that he was pretty ambivalent about statues per se.

In his novel Coming Up for Air, the narrator George Bowling, alluding to the endless tracts of semi-detached housing built in the 1930s, proposes a statue to 'the god of building societies'. And in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell writes about how his Russian friend, Boris, liked dining in a particular cafe in Montparnasse 'simply because the statue of Marshal Ney stands outside it' and he liked anything to do with soldiers.

In Victory Square in 1984, Winston Smith walks past 'the statue of a man on horseback which was supposed to represent Oliver Cromwell'. And according to Jeffrey Meyers's biography of Orwell, he was amused by the monument to the hymn writer, Reginald Heber, bishop of Calcutta. He told a friend, 'if you are ever near St Paul's & feel in a gloomy mood, go in & have a look at the statue of the first Protestant bishop of India, which will give you a good laugh'.

But I am sure that Orwell would have approved of the choice of sculptor to make his statue. Martin Jennings also did the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras, which has the poet holding his hat as he gazes up in wonder at the huge span of William Barlow’s train shed, and it is lovely.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Writer on the train

I really enjoyed James Attlee's books Isolarion (a journey along Oxford's Cowley Road) and Nocturne (a meditation on night and the dark), so I was intrigued to learn that his current incarnation is as 'writer on the train'. First Great Western has granted him a pass to its network and permission to talk to its staff, and so he is currently undertaking hundreds of journeys, seeing what insights he can gather when 'cut loose from the need to reach my destination as quickly as possible, on the lookout for unusual stories and destinations'.

Attlee joins a distinguished tradition of writers reflecting about the state of England and the meaning of life on trains. Edward Thomas's Adlestrop, of course. Orwell leaving Wigan in a third-class carriage, seeing a distraught working-class housewife, poking a blocked drain with a stick. The ‘frail travelling coincidence’ of the train journey that inspired Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings'. Or Peter Readings’s long poem, Stet (1986):

'A cooling tower, scrap cars bashed into cubes,
A preternaturally mauve canal.
… Cropped boys,
Aged about sixteen, manifest recruits'

Then there is Frances Cornford's 'To a fat woman seen from the train': 'O fat white woman whom nobody loves ...' - which begs the question, how did she know that nobody loved her?

Anyway, I urge you to check out Attlee's blog about the project at

and, if you are so inclined, follow him on Twitter at @thesteelhighway

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Do you remember the five-thirty from Paddington? What a dear old train it was.’ - Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

Sunday, 5 August 2012

I ate the world

A postscript to my post about Voyager 1 and the Pale Blue Dot. I just found this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, "This must thou eat." And I ate the world.'

As inaccessible as Eden

An afterthought on yesterday's post: motorway poetics is not an entirely new genre. A couple of years ago Simon Armitage published a chapbook called The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right, which I haven't managed to get hold of yet. Charles Tomlinson has also written a number of motorway poems, including this one, 'From the Motorway':

Gulls flock in to feed from the waste
They are dumping, truck by truck,
Onto a hump of land three roads
Have severed from all other:
Once the seeds drift down and net together
This shifting compost where the gulls
Are scavenging a winter living,
It will grow into a hill - for hawks
A hunting ground, but never to be named:
No one will ever go there. How
Shall we have it back, a belonging shape?
For it will breed no ghosts
But only - under the dip and survey
Of hawk-wings - the bones of tiny prey,
Its sodium glow on winter evenings
As inaccessible as Eden ...

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The poetics of the motorway

The poet Andrew Taylor sent me a copy of In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway, published by his own imprint, erbecce-press, and edited by him, Alan Corkish and the artist Edward Chell (who I've written about elsewhere on this blog). There are a couple of things I've written in there: a piece about the M62 from the New Statesman and some of my Motorway Twitter poems which I've posted before. But there is lots of really good new stuff by other people: the architectural critic David Lawrence on 'the nocturnal geography of the motorway service station'; the Dickens scholar Malcolm Andrews on the French autoroute and the Picturesque; and poems by Taylor and others on the M58, the M62-M57 Interchange and other unlikely objects of lyricism. I particularly liked the 'Motorway Prayer Poems' by the C of E vicar and psychogeographer John Davies, now sadly (for us) relocated from Liverpool to deepest Devon. Here is an extract from 'Prayer in the wind':

Bless all drivers of high-sided vehicles,
Bless all seagulls blown off course,
Bless all shoppers whose carrier bags are erratic sails in a bad storm.
Bless those who really are at sea, in cavernous calamitous waves.

Amen to that. The book, I have just discovered, was featured on Radio 4's Today programme a couple of weeks ago: