It all begins when I send off my spit in a tube to Dublin. Don’t be alarmed, it’s only the procedure for getting my DNA analysed. You simply drool into a little plastic funnel and the teaspoon of liquid needs to come up to a wavy black line marked on the tube. Spit, it seems, has often possessed magical properties. In Norse mythology, for example, to commemorate a peace treaty drawn up amongst the Æsir and the Vanir, the rival gods spat into a vessel. Kvasir – a poet and the wisest of all men – was created from this commingling of saliva.
To ensure that I don’t screw everything up, I double check the procedure outlined in the instruction booklet that comes with the Ancestry DNA kit. First of all, I go online and activate my 15-digit code. Only then do I fill up the tube to the black line and replace the funnel with the cap, which contains a pale blue stabilising solution. Once it’s tightened I shake the tube for a good ten seconds so that everything mixes together as it should. Finally I place it in the plastic bag and seal it with an adhesive strip. Now we are good to go and all that remains is to insert the sample in the prepaid packet and drop it in the mouth of the nearest post box. Job done.
With the virus holding sway, there’s going to be a delay of several weeks before my results are available. In the interim I’m motivated to make a few preliminary searches on the Internet, largely related to genealogical matters. To begin with I explore my German grandmother’s maiden name of Segeroth. It’s quite an unusual surname and I end up hazarding an educated guess at its etymology. The two components of this compound noun appear to be derived from the words Sieger and rot, which are German for warrior and red. But when I google Segeroth I’m intrigued to discover that there’s a district in Essen with that name. The fact that Essen is only twenty miles north of Düsseldorf – my mother’s birthplace – is enough for me to read the Wikipedia article. It’s in German, but that’s no problem because I’m bilingual.
The entry begins: “From the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, Segeroth was an industrial working-class district in the city of Essen.” By 1930 the population had swelled to over 40,000, and many of its inhabitants would have serviced the massive Krupp factory, which would later produce armaments during the war such as the famous Tiger tank. Despite the rise of fascism, Segeroth remained a stronghold of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) even throughout the whole of the Nazi period. It sounds like the sort of place in which I’d have been at home, waving a red flag emblazoned with a gold hammer and sickle.
Even though I’m digressing and getting well ahead of myself, you can see how the free association of ideas that the Internet provides can be a source of real pleasure and enlightenment. The way I see it, had I not casually googled Segeroth I would never have known about the area in Essen. In any case, isn’t it mind-boggling to have such a powerful resource at one’s fingertips? Unlike Doctor Faustus, I’ve no need of Mephistopheles to take me on a grand tour. Instead I’m able to range the globe at will from the comfort of my study. My German grandfather’s surname, for example, was Eckert, and that makes me wonder whether the pioneer of the modern computer – John Adam Presper Eckert – might be a distant relative. After all, he was even born in an area of Philadelphia known as Germantown!
When the email eventually arrives shortly after Christmas to say that my ancestry results are available I can’t wait to see what the outcome is. To be honest, it’s pretty much as I expect: I’m 35 per cent English, 29 per cent Germanic and 29 per cent Scottish. But there are two lovely surprises in store. It turns out that I’m also 4 per cent Irish and 3 per cent Norwegian. Perhaps that explains why I’m such a fan of Celtic literature and the Icelandic and Scandinavian sagas. Maybe there’s even a wee bit of Kvasir in my saliva as well.
Something remarkable happened a few years ago on social media and in those bastions of the bourgeoisie – The Guardian and BBC Radio 4. The middle-class gatekeepers suddenly realised there was a glaring deficiency in the UK publishing industry. We can express this deficiency in the following manner, by stating that it amounts to nothing less than the exclusion of working-class voices. For the avoidance of doubt, by ‘working-class voices’ we mean writers who are themselves working class, not middle-class writers whose subject is the working class.
Once the nature and scale of the problem had been identified, several initiatives were proposed to redress the balance. In 2019, Unbound published an anthology of working-class writing entitled Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. After the success of Common People, Unbound slated another book for publication entitled The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices, editedby Paul McVeigh. Like Common People, the aim was to include the work of established and so-called ‘emerging’ working-class writers. This procedure was not as straightforward as it might seem. One of the established authors scheduled for inclusion – Roddy Doyle – describes himself as having been brought up in a middle-class household. As we mentioned earlier, he is by definition one of those people who write about the working class even though they belong to the middle class.
This new collection from Culture Matters entitled From the Plough to the Stars: An Anthology of Working People’s Prose from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell, has a more radical aim. Rather than trying to repair the faulty machinery of the publishing industry, it is a genuine attempt to build a new machine, one which specifically showcases the output of working-class writers. It builds upon the companion volume – The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, also edited by Jenny Farrell and published in 2019 by Culture Matters.
From the Plough to the Stars is a marvellously diverse collection that embraces fiction and non-fiction. Amongst the former, we find examples of flash fiction, short stories, poetry and drama. In terms of non-fiction – for which we prefer to use the more specific category of ‘life writing’ – it comprises blog pieces, diary extracts, memoirs and essays.
One of the themes explored in this volume is the devastating impact of COVID-19 on working-class communities. Attracta Fahy’s memoir ‘Mothering Through the Pandemic’ is narrated by a mother, concerned about the welfare of her son, who is working on the front line as an anaesthetist in a hospital in Los Angeles. As for lockdown, which has become a part of the fabric of all our lives, Rachel Hegarty’s ‘The Dodgy Box’ shows how one resourceful woman seeks to resolve the inevitable friction caused when families are confined to their homes. Hence the narrator is presented with no other option than to invest in an illegal set-top box to keep the family entertained with a wide variety of TV programmes during lockdown.
Maeve McKenna’s nostalgic memoir ‘I Want To Go Home’ demonstrates the verbal inventiveness of one of Rimbaud’s prose poems. It is the outpouring of someone who yearns for Dublin as a source of spiritual nourishment, despite no longer living in that city. Speaking of Dublin and linguistic fluency, there’s a direct homage to James Joyce’s short story ‘Eveline’ in Jim Ward’s similarly titled ‘Evelyn’. But where Joyce’s young woman was Irish, the Evelyn of this contemporary story is a Polish immigrant. As for the Irish language itself, there are several works which reflect on that topic, such as the fascinating scholarly memoir from Tomás Mac Síomóin – ‘A Ballyfermot Enigma!’ And for the reader proficient in Gaelic, there are a number of occasions where the authors have included both English and Irish versions of the same piece.
Direct political action also plays a significant role – especially in ‘Vigil in Support of Irish Water During Seanad Vote on Wednesday’ by Kevin Higgins. The same subject is covered in the delightful short story ‘They Also Serve Who Only…’ by Moya Roddy and in Kevin Doyle’s ‘The Water War’. ‘The 1970 Cement Strike’ by Seosamh ó Cuaig is a personal response to yet another industrial conflict.
Religious oppression is the subject of Patrick Bolger’s story of child sexual abuse, perpetrated by a member of the priesthood (‘Revelation’) and in Anne Water’s ‘St. Stephen’s Day’, with its tale of the notorious Magdalen laundries.
The Troubles, and the brutal oppression of the Irish Catholic population by the forces of English imperialism, are vividly brought home in Sean Maguire’s ‘Window Pain’, set in Belfast during the 1970s. Conflict, whether overt or repressed, is a common ingredient. There is, for instance, the dangerous life of the loan shark, as recounted in Edward Boyne’s short story ‘Local’, and the senseless violence that erupts in Karl Parkinson’s ‘Deano and the Boys From the Block’. Then there is Seamus Scanlon’s ‘On the House’ – a veritable tour de force of tragicomic dimensions, that grows darker and darker by the minute. Meanwhile, Anne Mac Darby-Beck’s ‘Sick Day’ is a tale of pent-up aggression lurking just below the surface.
Although drug addiction, abject poverty, illness and death are frequently dealt with, lighter themes are certainly not discounted. For example, Gráinne Daly’s piece ‘The Dublin-Meath Saga’ is devoted entirely to sport – in this particular instance Gaelic football. Woven side by side with this narrative of long-standing football rivalry is a story of possible familial reconciliation.
Given the wide-ranging topics and genres on display, there are even two works of science fiction in this anthology: ‘King of the Concrete Jungle’ by Ross Walsh and ‘Token House’ by David Murphy.
One can only scratch the surface in a brief review of this nature. Because of the sheer variety on offer, there is something here for everyone. From the Plough to the Stars is therefore a work that demands your attention.
Michael Jarvie introduces a new section of our website, on Life Writing
My collection of working-class life writing, Into the Silence, has a Dewey Decimal Classification of 828 in my local library. So that means it falls into the category of English: Miscellaneous Writings. That’s a start I suppose, though it hardly provides the curious reader with any clear indication as to what life writing might actually be.
As I explain in the introduction to my book, the individual pieces are all based on actual events, real people and real places. It’s therefore a work of non-fiction and incorporates elements of memoir, reviews of films and theatre productions, letters and blog posts. Given its autobiographical nature, it’s written in the first person, though I do sometimes employ the second person – you – for the sake of variety.
Life writing is merely a new-fangled set of words for a kind of writing which stretches all the way back to St Augustine’s Confessions. So, is it simply another way to describe a full-length autobiography, such as the aforementioned work? Not necessarily. Although a piece of life writing might conceivably expand into a book, it can also manifest itself as a much shorter work, or a series of such works. See, for example, that undisputed masterpiece of sixteenth century French literature – Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.
In England the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods were a golden age for would-be wordsmiths such as Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene. A few years later, during that period in our history which Marxist historians refer to as the English Revolution (1640-1660) there was yet another explosion in terms of religious and political tracts. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be a pamphleteer in those days. Radical thinkers such as the Leveller, John Lilburne, and the Quaker, James Naylor, together with an army of Ranters and Diggers were all keen to have their say about how they envisioned a future society, especially one based on more egalitarian principles. But by doing so, they also gave us a remarkable insight into their everyday lives.
This is particularly relevant for us today since it demonstrates how the working class can access the arena of literature through alternative and subversive routes. The end of the seventeenth century also culminated in what is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of life writing, namely Samuel Pepys’s Diary.
In more recent times, with the emergence of the monolithic publishing houses, the scope for working-class self-expression has been severely curtailed. Life writing, however, continues to offer another outlet for those of us who have been excluded by the gatekeepers. Life writing is also a remarkably open and inclusive form. For some people the exploration of memory and the events of one’s own life can have a genuine therapeutic effect. Moreover, if you find that your work is rejected it can provide you with an opportunity to channel your energies in a different direction. It is, after all, the sort of thing that you could quite easily publish on a blog, for instance.
As a way to salve its guilt, the mainstream publishing industry has been making all the right noises recently about taking steps towards greater inclusivity and the like. In response to pressure from underrepresented writers, two collections of working-class life writing have appeared in the last few years, albeit as a result of crowd-funding schemes. The first of these is Know Your Place, edited by Nathan Connolly and published by Dead Ink Books in 2017. The second is Common People, edited by Kit de Waal, which was published by Unbound in 2019.
My own introduction to life writing came about when I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University between the years 2014-15. Having been advised to keep a notebook with me at all times to jot down ideas, some of the first material that was committed to that notebook found its way into one of my life writing works – “Language Games and Liminal States”.
For the final piece in the life writing section of Into the Silence I decided to undertake a nostalgic trip to Saltburn-by-the-Sea. However, when I arrived at Darlington railway station with a new notebook in my pocket, there were two conflicting emotions tugging at me. The first was a palpable sense of apprehension, bordering on terror. Allow me to explain. Since I’m a purist when it comes to my own life writing – in other words I don’t make anything up – it means that I’m completely at the mercy of events, which for someone who likes to be in control can be an unsettling feeling. Despite that initial sense of dread, the second emotion was one of sheer exhilaration. Because I didn’t know what was about to occur when I embarked on this particular journey, that made it all the more exciting.
Just because I’m a purist when it comes to being faithful to the events of my life doesn’t mean you have to be. The beauty with life writing is that it can be whatever you want it to be. The real skill, of course, is shaping the material and giving it a satisfactorystructure. But if you’re a writer that’s something you should be familiar with already.
So what are you waiting for? Get writing! For inspiration here are twelve works to explore, all of them splendid examples of life writing:
Saint Augustine Confessions The Book of Margery Kempe Michel De Montaigne Essays Daniel Defoe A Journal of the Plague Year Jean-Jacques Rousseau Confessions The Diary of Anne Frank Harry Pearson The Far Corner Simon Garfield The Wrestling Stephen Kuusisto Planet of the Blind W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn Lynsey Hanley Estates Kerry Hudson Lowborn
Michael Jarvie reviews the Norman Cornish exhibition currently on at the Bowes Museum, Durham, and takes in the Silver Swan as well
The Norman Cornish exhibition at the Bowes Museum is a retrospective, marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, and is spread out over three adjacent rooms. There’s a certain degree of irony involved given that fact that the Bowes family were mine owners whereas Cornish was a pitman painter from Spennymoor in County Durham. Moreover, during his lifetime he was subjected to class snobbery from those occupying a more elevated position in the social hierarchy – certain artists, for instance, didn’t want their work displayed next to his.
There he is on the left near the entrance in the ‘Self Portrait with Spectacles’. Wearing a V-neck sweater, his shirt collar is dramatically flung open to reveal blue-black stubble, which accentuates the paleness of his skin. Beneath a mass of tousled hair, his angular features are rugged as any rock formation.
Given the high ceilings and airy spaces of the museum, I’m immediately thrust into a cramped and claustrophobic environment in terms of the subject matter. ‘The Pony Putter’ is a case in point. The putter is the man – or more often the boy – who is in charge of the pit pony as it hauls a tub of coal along a stretch of track inside the mine. Cornish himself left school at the age of fourteen in 1933 and was initially employed at the Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill as a ‘datal lad’ before becoming a putter four years later. He therefore understood what it felt like to be hunched up in a tunnel, riding on one of the pony’s wooden shafts.
Coal mining, with its constricted spaces, has always reminded me of the trenches in World War One. I recall how those skills were drawn upon in that conflict with specialist gangs tunnelling through no man’s land to lay devastating mines beneath the enemy positions.
As I wander from room to room ‘The Pit Road’ is an ever-present theme in its various iterations. The distortions in the contours of the landscape are due to subsidence, and the crooked telegraph poles are reminiscent of a crucifixion scene. The men plodding along this familiar route are, as it were, making their way towards their own Calvary. Another nocturnal version of ‘The Pit Road’ pays homage to the work of Vincent van Gogh and his ‘Starry Night Over the Rhône’.
Despite the iconographic importance of the industry in which Cornish worked for well over thirty years, more carefree activities also feature amongst these sixty-odd paintings and sketches. Particularly poignant are scenes from the artist’s home life – of his son and daughter, and of his wife sewing, knitting or simply peeling potatoes. Although he employs pen, pastel and oil paint, charcoal seems the perfect medium given its kinship with the material that was so vital to him in his working life.
All in all, a sense of community is splendidly realised throughout these paintings. ‘Berriman’s Chip Van’ for instance has a real warmth and vibrancy to it. This horse-drawn chip van, with its coke-fired pans, used to be a feature of the Spennymoor streets where it sold chips and fish cakes. Chips 6d and 8d as the writing on the side of the van proclaims.
Then there are the archetypal images of men playing dominoes and darts, or leaning against a public bar with glasses of beer in front of them and whippets standing docilely behind them. In ‘Busy Bar’ the beer has the same rich hue as the wooden counter on which the glasses are congregated. As I pace from one painting to the next what strikes me is an obsession with the human form as seen from behind.
Outdoor scenes tend to have a chilly feel to them. The sky is predominantly muted grey in colour, never bright blue. Despite the weather there’s always plenty of activity – whether it’s a man riding a bike or kids playing football, and in the back yards of the terraced houses lines of washing hang out to dry.
With my visit to the exhibition at an end, I decide not to hang around until two o’clock to witness the silver swan performing its daily routine. I’ve seen it on a number of previous occasions. Besides, there’s a bus due in half an hour.
In case you are not familiar with the silver swan, it dates from 1773 and cost John Bowes £200 – over £22,000 in today’s money. Made by skilled artisans and constructed from solid silver, it’s a life-size automaton. It dominates its glass display case and is the embodiment of the natural world sanitised for the benefit of the spectator, not like the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The average coal hewer would have needed to work for 500 years to earn that sort of money, and yet Bowes could afford to squander the sum on what is, despite its beauty and exquisite craftsmanship, essentially a frivolity. It’s a clockwork-operated automaton of the kind you might have expected to encounter in J.F. Sebastian’s cluttered apartment in Blade Runner.
Although possessing no concrete evidence, I suspect that the man-hours devoted to its manufacture were grossly undervalued, even taking into account the cost of the materials such as the solid silver for the body of the swan and the leaves that encircle the pond. In total there are three clockwork mechanisms controlling the various movements and a musical box that plays seven tunes.
When after thirty seconds or so the swan reaches into the water, represented by rotating glass rods, and retrieves a silver fish, which it then swallows, we are being offered no more than a conjuring trick. All the while the fish was concealed inside its beak.
The mute swan is therefore the embodiment of the rich man feeding on the defenceless minnows of the working class and living off the surplus value of their labour. In many ways this automaton is the perfect simulacrum of the capitalist – a body without a soul.
The exhibition of Norman Cornish paintings is on at the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham, till 23rd February.
Michael Jarvie discusses the life and work of Béla Bartók
If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining you will have heard some of Bartók’s characteristic ‘night music’ – in this instance the eerie third movement of his magnificent Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. During his lifetime he was branded a ‘young barbarian’ by the French press, and in 1923 the Daily Mail published a specifically Bartók-bashing headline entitled ‘Is it music?’ Even Time magazine in 1945 – the year of his death – referred to his compositions as being ‘piquant and cacophonous.’ So who exactly was Béla Bartók?
Born in Hungary in 1881, his birthplace of Nagyszentmiklós is now in Romania. Suffering from frequent bouts of ill health as a child, including pneumonia and severe eczema, he was introverted and reclusive, though there has been a tentative suggestion recently that he might also have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. What we do know is that at three years of age he was given a drum, which he would beat in time to his mother’s piano playing; a year later he could pick out forty songs on the same piano, albeit with one finger; and he gave his first piano recital at the age of eleven. A musical education was therefore a necessity for this child prodigy – endowed with perfect pitch – and he was eventually admitted to Budapest’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music.
Given that his native country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the musical sphere was predominantly in thrall to Germanic influences. Consequently, German musicians or German-trained Hungarian musicians held many of the principal academic posts. Almost inevitably, Bartók’s creative awakening came about when he heard the music of a German composer – Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra – another piece used in a Kubrick film. This revelatory experience inspired him to compose his symphonic poem, Kossuth, in 1903.
Exploring peasant folk music
However, the event which had the most far-reaching consequences was Bartók’s momentous decision to explore the peasant music of his native land with his fellow composer, Zoltán Kodály. Beginning in 1906, the field trips he undertook would eventually span a period of several decades. He would typically travel on board a horse-drawn cart with an Edison phonograph, cradling the wax cylinders in his lap to protect them during transit. He would later proceed to record and classify the indigenous music of Romania, Slovakia, Moldavia, Wallachia, Bulgaria, Turkey and North Africa.
As Halsey Stevens has noted, ‘he found the music of the Arabs, isolated in the vast reaches of the Sahara, less highly developed and consequently less interesting than that of the Magyars and the surrounding peoples. The avoidance of foreign influences, he concluded, whether deliberate or not, leads to stagnation; enrichment of folk music results from the absorption of such influences.’ (The Life and Music of Béla Bartók, p.48.) This is a very pertinent observation for our own times, demonstrating as it does the benefits of multiculturalism, as opposed to the impoverishment that necessarily results from any monocultural hegemony.
Throughout his rigorously scientific and thoroughly respectful investigations, no attempt was made to ‘beautify’ or in any to way to tamper with the originals. Indeed, this area of research is a pioneering example of what is now known as ethnomusicology. Bearing this laudable aim in mind we might contrast Bartók’s endeavours with the work of the brothers Grimm, whose original two-volume edition of their fairy tales (1812/15) was, over the years, re-edited so drastically that the disturbing and rough-edged elements were eventually bowdlerised and smoothed over, thereby ensuring that the tales would be more inclined to appeal to a bourgeois readership and inculcate bourgeois values.
For Bartok, recording folk music was just the beginning of a long process. The next step involved meticulously transcribing it and then perhaps adapting it for piano. One of the works to bear fruit in the years 1908-09 was the piano suite, For Children, a series of 79 pieces, which are based on traditional Hungarian and Slovakian folk tunes. Although primarily pedagogical in nature, the suite is also sometimes played in recitals. This was followed by Mikrokosmos, written between 1926 and 1939, which is a monumental collection in six volumes of some 153 individual works, ranging in difficulty from pieces suitable for beginners to those of a professional standard.
Although the study of folk music was very much in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century – witness Vaughan Williams in England – what happened next would ultimately determine Bartók’s future direction as a composer. As a result of his total absorption in his task his creative resources were augmented to such an extent that his future compositions appeared to be directly excavated from what can only be described as a primordial layer of his being. Bartók’s mature music therefore incorporated folk music so comprehensively, so fundamentally, that it became truly autochthonous. One is reminded of what Stravinsky said of the composition of The Rite of Spring: ‘I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.’
One of the earliest orchestral works to express this new sensibility was his one act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911, but only performed in 1918 by the Budapest Opera after the success of his ballet The Wooden Prince the previous year. However, the first performance in Cologne in 1926 of The Miraculous Mandarin with its pounding ostinato rhythms, depicting the nightmarish environment of the modern city, and reminiscent of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, was met with catcalls, booing, stamping and whistles. The second performance was proscribed and the conductor taken to task by the mayor, Konrad Adenauer, and the city council. For a proposed production of The Miraculous Mandarin in Budapest in 1931 on his fiftieth birthday the Hungarian authorities objected to its setting – a brothel – so the producer changed it to a dimly-lit back street. Despite this concession, it was officially banned on moral grounds after the dress rehearsal. Ten years later another production was cancelled because of objections from the clergy.
Pragmatic choices therefore determined the kinds of musical forces for which Bartók would later write, and much of that music came about by virtue of its being commissioned. As a virtuoso pianist he composed piano pieces and the three piano concertos so that these could be performed in concert. However, discouraged by the limited number of performances and by the lukewarm or hostile reception they received he didn’t produce as many large-scale symphonic works as one might have otherwise expected.
Music, politics and anti-fascism
Art, moreover, does not exist in a vacuum, and Bartók would soon have to make some exceedingly difficult decisions in the face of a grave political crisis that was heading inexorably towards the abyss. Notwithstanding the worrying implications of the Anschluss, when Austria meekly capitulated to the ‘bandits and assassins’ of Nazi Germany, Bartók didn’t quite lose his mordant sense of humour. He and Kodály received questionnaires asking them whether they came from German ancestry or were of non-Aryan origin. Bartók responded in a letter to a friend:
‘naturally neither I nor Kodály filled it out; our point of view is that such inquisitions are contrary to right and law. In a way that is too bad, because one could make some good jokes in answering; for example, we might say that we are not Aryans – because in the final analysis (as I learn from the lexicon) “Aryan” means “Indo-European”; we Magyars, however, are Finno-Ugrics, yes, and what is more, perhaps racially northern Turks, consequently not at all Indo-European, and therefore non-Aryan.’ (Halsey Stevens, op. cit., p. 85.)
As the previous quotation demonstrates, Bartók was, above all, unswerving in his abhorrence of Nazism, and to that end he ceased giving concerts in Germany and terminated his publishing contract with Universal-Edition in that country once Hungary joined the three main Axis powers in the Tripartite Pact. At the end of 1940, with the political situation worsening, he boarded a cargo steamer at Lisbon with his second wife, Ditta, landing in New York ten days later after a rough voyage.
In the New World, troubled by worrying health problems, he was cut off from his main sources of income in Europe. Despite these privations, he could still find humour in his situation, describing in a letter how he and his wife had spent the best part of three hours lost in the depths of the New York subway system. An uncompromising and ascetic individual, he only managed to eke out a modest living giving music lessons, which were supplemented by the occasional fee for concerts and lectures, as well as securing an enthnomusicological post at Columbia University. Nevertheless, this was also a period of intense creativity, and in 1943 his friend and compatriot, the conductor Serge Kossevistky, commissioned the ebullient Concerto for Orchestra for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who gave the work its premiere the following year.
The next composition was his Sonata for Solo Violin, which was dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin. In the ThirdPiano Concerto the trio section of the Adagio Religioso is based on birdcalls that Bartók notated in Asheville, North Carolina, and this affinity with birdsong is a trait that he shares with the French composer Olivier Messiaen. After this outpouring of new works in his adopted country he eventually succumbed to leukemia. Sadly, only ten people attended his funeral at Ferncliff cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, since in those days he was known more as a pianist rather than as a composer.
In truth, Bartók was only fully appreciated after his death. As Halsey Stephens has pointed out:
In 1948-9 American symphony orchestras played Bartók’s music more frequently than that of any other composer of the twentieth century except Strauss and Prokofiev.
Bartók and the cultural Cold War
To date, since the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra, well over seventy recordings have been made of that particular work alone. There was, however, one final hurdle for his music to overcome. In 1948 the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow, following the regulations dictated by Zhdanov, condemned musical modernism because of its ‘bourgeois influence’, its ‘formalism’ and ‘abstraction.’ A year later, after a rigged election in which the victorious Mátyás Rákosi polled 97 per cent of the vote, Hungary became a satellite state of the USSR. Consequently, Bartók’s music had to negotiate not only the Scylla of National Socialism but also the Charybdis of Socialist Realism.
Many of his compositions were subsequently suppressed from radio broadcasts and concert halls in Hungary. The Miraculous Mandarin was banned as a matter of course because it ‘was inappropriate for the moral and aesthetic education of the Hungarian working class’. Bartók’s music could therefore be allocated to the following three categories: works that were banned, works that were rarely performed, and works which were fully approved, which is a patently absurd situation when one considers how deeply his compositions are rooted in the music of the common people.
In effect, his music became an unwitting pawn during the Cold War era – championed by the capitalist West and Voice of America radio broadcasts in the same way that the CIA weaponised Abstract Expressionism. In other words, his music was held up as embodying the cultural freedom and superiority of the West as opposed to the conservatism and repression of the USSR, despite the fact that his music had been largely ignored for much of his life.
Eventually, in 1988, Bartók’s remains were returned to Budapest where he was given a full state funeral. In his will he had stipulated that no plaque or memorial should be erected to him in Hungary if there remained any street or square named after Hitler or Mussolini. Thankfully, there were no such memorials to those ‘bandits and assassins’ as he called them. Moreover, if you happen to venture up into the hills above Budapest you will find a commemorative statue of Bartók, overlooking the house in which he spent his last eight years in Hungary, a fitting tribute to someone who, through his strikingly innovative compositions, introduced the folk music of his fellow countrymen to an even wider and appreciative audience.
Halsey Stevens, The Life and Music of BélaBartók, Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1964.
Duke Bluebeards’ Castle, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady, Bavarian State Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Deutsche Grammophon.
Cantata Profana, The Wooden Prince, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Deutsche Grammophon.
The Miraculous Mandarin (complete ballet) Riccardo Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Decca.
Concerto for Orchestra, Dance Suite, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, Decca.
Divertimento for Strings, The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, Decca.
Piano Concertos 1 and 2, Maurizio Pollini, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abaddo, Deutsche Grammophon.
Piano Concert No 3, Zoltan Kocsis, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, Philips.
Violin Concerto No 2, Kyung-Wha Chung, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, EMI.
Viola Concerto, Wolfram Christ, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, Deutsche Grammophon.
String Quartets 1-6, Emerson String Quartet, Deutsche Grammophon.
Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Katia & Marielle Labèque, EMI.
Sonata for Solo Violin, Krysia Osostowicz, Hyperion.
Complete Solo piano music, Zoltan Kocsis, Philips.
Jane Burn has forged her characteristic poetical voice in what can only be described as the most difficult of circumstances. In fact, it is all voice, an expressive working-class woman’s voice, at times roused to anger by the injustices of the world, at other times loving and enraptured. To use Martin Heidegger’s terminology, she illustrates our ‘geworfenheit’, in other words the way in which we are thrown into existence, and her life experiences clearly demonstrate how she has embarked on a journey of self-realisation from her original state of ‘uneigentlichkeit’ to one of ‘eigentlichkeit’ (i.e. from an inauthentic to an authentic mode of being.)
The present collection is published by Culture Matters, a left-wing co-operative based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We must be grateful that they exist since it is unlikely that such radical work would otherwise be brought to our attention by the largely conservative and bourgeois-dominated mainstream publishing industry.
Thematically, the collection revolves around childhood, work, motherhood, mental health, political consciousness and the natural world. To enhance the reader’s experience, the poetry is accompanied by the author’s magnificent pen and watercolour illustrations.
The war instigated and ruthlessly prosecuted by Margaret Thatcher and the Tories against working-class communities, especially the wilful and sustained destruction of the mining industry in the South Yorkshire coalfields is vividly portrayed in these poems. Deindustrialisation with its ‘smithereened windows and skin of muck’ is the focal point, since everything else follows from that policy: escalating crime rates, increased drug dependency, the breakdown of formerly tightly-knit communities, a reliance on foodbanks, a spike in mental health problems and the rise of insecure minimum wage jobs in the service sector.
What of the poetry, then? How does it address these issues? First of all, let us begin with childhood. This was overwhelmingly a period of inauthenticity. As Jane Burn says in her Foreword, ‘I didn’t eat a courgette until I was twenty. I didn’t know that anyone could be an archaeologist.’ And she certainly never expected to be a poet.
The poems of childhood are particularly poignant and memorable. There is ‘Potato Pickers’ with its ‘cold, umber mud unveiling its slumbering fruit’ and in ‘The Man Who Sold Mice’ the author reveals how she was unable to resist these creatures, priced at 50p each, when, ‘They pressed their sweet pink paws against the clear divide’ of the aquarium. Given the unsentimental nature of this poetry, one of the mice meets a grisly end, as does the fairground goldfish in its plastic bag and the horse in ‘Livestock, Deadstock’:
The blank-faced man in wipe-clean pants Palms the pistol, slots in a round, snaps it shut.
Her politically charged poems vary in terms of how successful they are. At best, they articulate a rage at the way in which inequality and hatred of the ‘other’ have been allowed to flourish under the guise of ‘caring Conservatism’. Perhaps one of the best poems in this vein is ‘You Kipper’. This work presents a narrative in miniature, with a beautifully handled turning point near the end. The poem begins:
This old man at the till, All dodder and fluff.
The customer is presented sympathetically – he is courteous and friendly – and the author wishes she could ‘snoodle’ him. But then we are presented with this awful revelation:
He breaches the weathered fold of his fossil wallet, scrabbles his eolith fingers within. I see it. It comes out with his bus pass, his twenty pound note. His membership card for the Kippers…
Jane Burn is particularly adept at capturing the essence of a character, whether it is the aforementioned Kipper or this meticulously observed figure from ‘Working for Mr Bone’:
I never once saw him smiling. Dealer boots And thin ginger hair, wisping his dome like funfair floss – Fat belly, bow legs. He was a sight. Cruel mouth.
In ‘no light of their own’ we are told how, in the past, babies were actually born in the depths of the pit. The poem concludes:
They must have blinked As they broke the surface, Blood mixed with soot. The day must have seemed So bright. A bliss of rays.
These lines remind me of one of Pozzo’s speeches in Waiting For Godot where that character proclaims, ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more’.
All I can hope to achieve in a review of this length is to scratch the surface, given the variety of work on offer. Particular standout works are: ‘Livestock, Deadstock’ and ‘this is not a poem about birds’. I should also mention the wonderful ‘found poem’ entitled ‘who do you sponge off?’ which is a patchwork of quotations attributed to His Royal Highness Prince Philip.
There are inevitably a handful of typos (‘whithers’ instead of ‘withers’ for the ridge between the shoulderblades of a horse and ‘Barnsely’ instead of ‘Barnsley’ in ‘The Community Charge How Will It Work For You?) but these are minor issues. (Oops, sorry about that - Ed.)
I would therefore urge you in the strongest possible terms to purchase a copy of One of These Dead Places. You will not be disappointed.