Category Archives: Memoir

It Goes With the Territory: memoirs of a poet by Elaine Feinstein (Alma, £20)

it goes with the territoryElaine Feinstein is the author of sixteen collections of poetry, three collections of poetry in translation, fifteen novels, two short story collections and seven biographies but has chosen “memoirs of a poet” as the sub-title of this book rather than a “writer”, giving away immediately her main interest and leading us to the world in which she made an unlikely entry so many decades ago. Against her was that she was Jewish, provincial, female, unconnected and married with three children before she could really call herself a poet. In her favour, however, was that as a teenager “while other girls dreamt of princes and Hollywood stars, I dreamt of dead poets.”

Elaine went to Cambridge where she wrote for Granta and set up Prospect, publishing Harold Pinter, Denise Levertov and Donald Davie, amongst others, and made friends with Allen Ginsberg. Her influences as a poet were from the west, the Black Mountain poets and Charles Reznikoff and, later, from the east, when she made another reputation as a translator ,particularly of Marina Tsvetieva. Along the way Elaine brought up her children, met internationally famous poets such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who kept her up all night drinking, and Joseph Brodsky, who she fell out with over translation.

Her novel Russian Jerusalem manages to bring together all her favourite Russian interests, from Isaac Babel on, and her memoir reveals not a few scrapes as she tries to work with refuseniks in broken down flats in Moscow suburbs. Some of her work reveals profound melancholy, and one reason, outlined in her memoir, was often her difficult but fifty-years long marriage to Arnold Feinstein, a scientist, who was unfaithful and, at times, threatened by her successes. Yet she loved Arnold despite everything, which led to her most recent book of poems Talking to the Dead, a group of elegies for him. The book more or less ends with Arnold’s death in 2012.

It Goes With the Territory will be of particular value to those concerned with the history of twentieth century poetry, but of a wider value to those concerned about how women moved into the world of men in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ross Bradshaw

Meeting the Devil: a book of memoir from the London Review of Books (Heinemann, £25)

meeting the devilThe London Review of Books has a more or less permanent place on the front counter at Five Leaves Bookshop. Hopefully we will become intellectuals by osmosis, but more importantly it is a reminder of the best bookshop in Britain – the London Review Bookshop. Oh, if only we were in London, three minutes from the British Museum with a major international magazine behind us. Still, we have LeftLion and we are next to a bookies.

The LRB can be quite hard to read at times. A little too much on German philosophy after Hegel in the current issue, but, like the recent looong article on Julian Assange, David Renton’s article remembering the murder of Blair Peach will stay long in the memory. The LRB is like that, annoyingly over-intellectual and obscure one minute, with searing articles the next. And the authors are given enough space to develop their articles. The mag is serious about what it does. One of the best features is the inclusion of memoir, often lengthy pieces – which have been collected in this book. The title memoir is by Hilary Mantel, on a medical crisis. Others memoirs that will stick with me are by Edward Said on trying to live in the space between his role as an academic and as a campaigner for Palestine and, especially, Joe Kenyon on his days as a miner prior to nationalisation. Other pieces have become familiar – Alan Bennett on “The Lady in the Van” and Lorna Sage’s “The Old Devil and His Wife”. The latter is a demolition job on her awful grandparents which (I am almost certain) appeared as part of her family memoir Bad Blood which could be described as mis lit but transcended the genre. Not all the pieces are so good. A.J.P. Taylor’s “Breakdown” needed a paragraph or two of explanation while, surprisingly, the LRB’s long-standing editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ article about her attitudes to the women’s movement was one of the weakest in the book.

Some of the pieces reach into the past, such as Tariq Ali writing about his strange visit to North Korea forty-odd years ago but the collection ends with Jenny Diski visiting the future – planning her own funeral.

I could say this is a book to dip into… but I’ve been reading it steadily, article after article. And I want more.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Reading Barry MacSweeney, edited by Paul Batchelor (Bloodaxe, £12)

readingbarrymacsweeney

The essays Paul Batchelor has assembled in this volume hide behind a prosaic and somewhat misleading title. This is not so much a reader’s guide as a series of specific responses to MacSweeney’s life and work, some defiantly cerebral, some forged in personal memory and anecdote.

MacSweeney was post-war British poetry’s lone wolf: a journalist rather than an academic, an endlessly self-reinventing experimentalist, a man who rejected trends and movements. It’s no coincidence that his earliest important poems was called ‘Brother Wolf’, and his Selected Poems was issued as Wolf Tongue. MacSweeney had bad experiences with mainstream publishers; much of his output was via small presses. Even the release Wolf Tongue and its preceding volume The Book of Demons under the Bloodaxe imprint was bittersweet: they’d previously rejected his 1985 sequence Ranter.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that the ten essays in Reading Barry MacSweeney add up to a fragmented, troublesome and argumentative book. Harriet Tarlo’s placing of MacSweeney in an “old-new” poetic tradition has a lot of thought behind it but reads like a first year university student thesis, overburdened with assertions of “I shall demonstrate” variety. John Wilkinson’s aggressively academic analysis of MacSweeney’s political poems is made from an ivory tower, demonstrating abject naivety regarding the British political landscape of the 1980s. His essay is full of statements like “the power of Barry MacSweeney’s best poems lies in their creative and integrative summons to the reader, surprised into poetic activity which has not been advertised according to post-authorial dogma”. And that’s one of the easier sentences to parse!

On the plus side, W.N. Herbert offers a highly readable overview of The Book of Demons; Matthew Jarvis evocatively maps the Northern landscape that provides a rugged backdrop to the best of MacSweeney’s work; editor Paul Batchelor relies on close reading and textual reference, hewing as close to the poetry as possible; Andrew Duncan brings insight and empathy to the story behind the unfinished Black Torch sequence; and Peter Riley and William Walton Rowe offer coolly objective analyses of MacSweeney’s heroes and nemeses respectively.

 The two best pieces are by the contributors who knew him. Terry Kelly considers MacSweeney’s musical influences in a warm, poignant and beautifully understated mini-memoir. S.J. Litherland, MacSweeney’s partner in the last decade of his life, lovingly reconciles the different aspects of a troubled and brilliant individual, citing instances of MacSweeney the journalist using his position to champion the underdog that will make you want to stand up and cheer. These two essays alone make Reading Barry MacSweeney a worthwhile purchase. They bring you MacSweeney the human being in all his conflicted and vulnerable glory.

 Neil Fulwood

 

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press, £12.99)

BurtondiariesNearly thirty years after his death, The Richard Burton Diaries gives us a portrait of the actor so illuminating and no-holds-barred honest that it’s a tragedy he never marshalled his reminiscences into an autobiography. The book is edited by Chris Williams, whose love of footnotes is as all-consuming as Burton’s torrid passion for Elizabeth Taylor.

Clocking in at nearly 700 pages, the diaries are ordered into six main sections: 1939-1940, in which a series of regular but short entries give a snapshot of his childhood and a burgeoning love of literature; 1960, which is little more than an appointments diary; 1965-1972, which spans almost 500 pages; 1975, documenting his brief remarriage to Taylor and an unhealthy amount of drinking; 1980, centring mostly on his theatrical tour with Camelot; and 1983, which ends as he’s about to take to the stage again in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, an ill-fated production that co-starred Taylor.

As one would imagine, the Burton-Taylor years occupy centre stage. Cineastes will regret the lack behind-the-scenes on some of Burton’s most celebrated performance – there’s barely a word on The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Becket or Night of the Iguana – but what there is, in plenitude, is an account of Burton’s life – the travel, the glamour, the fabulous restaurants, the glitzy hotels, the premieres and hobnobbing. He almost casually records his acquisition of extravagantly priced jewellery, a yacht and a private jet. “I did something beyond outrage,” he says of dropping $960,000 for the latter – this in 1967, the equivalent of $6.5million today!

In the wrong hands, this could have been the stuff of gloating. But everything Burton writes is tempered with his background, the poverty of his childhood, the admission – made repeatedly – that he’s been lucky. Moreover, fame and materialism didn’t lull him into intellectual moribundity. Throughout Burton demonstrates an inquiring mind, a thirst for knowledge, a keen engagement with the written word and a fascination with linguism.

I haven’t enjoyed an actor in his own words this much since Ever, Dirk, John Coldstream’s volume of Dirk Bogarde’s waspish and unmediated correspondence. Bogarde, of course, enjoyed a second career as a memoirist, novelist and reviewer in the last two decades or so of his life. It’s a damn shame Burton didn’t get to tread a similar path.

Neil Fulwood

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (Penguin, £8.99)

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie LeeI first bought this book for 30p in the early 1970s, in my imagination wanting to be like the bloke on the right, rather than the trampish bloke on the left. (Given that the book was written about the years starting 1934, the modern design perhaps uses poetic licence.) Yes, As I Walked Out… was one of those books young people used to read about going on the road, in Lee’s case by foot, armed only with a bedroll, and a violin to earn his crust by busking. He first walks from his village outside of Stroud to London, taking the long road, where he works on a building site for a year before heading to Spain, where he spends a further year. There he wanders from village to village, town to town seeking out the poor quarters only ragged people know (thanks, Paul Simon), which in Spain in the 1930s was most of the country. Somehow he gets by on lumps of rock-hard goat’s cheese, the occasional fig and too much rough wine, served by even rougher people happy for him to share their poor homes or taverns for the equivalent of pennies. The occasional woman takes him into her bed, while other locals give other assistance. The book is lyrical, but not romantic – how could it be when faced with the squalid lives lived by landless peasants, day labourers and fishermen. The shakedown mattresses he is given are alive with bedbugs, washing is cold water troughs in the open and there is an undercurrent of despair and violence.

As the book moves towards its end Lee begins to see that the peasants and poor people of Andalucia think there might be another way to live. The church in the village where he is staying is burnt out… The author is tasked with taking a message about grenades. The Civil War starts, and the book ends suddenly with Lee rescued by a ship picking up stranded Britons.

Rereading this book after a few decades I am perhaps aware that Lee might have embellished his story (there was an argument about the accuracy of his later Civil War memoir), but it is still a good read, and good background reading on the day-to-day lives of the people of Spain in the 1930s.

Ross Bradshaw