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“Persian has destroyed what lingering respect I had for grammar…” #basilbunting @Alex_Niven @OxUniPress

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Looking back on the last couple of months, it does seem to have been a summer of epic reads! I was extremely involved in Serge’s “Last Times“, but I’ve also spent a good part of the last few weeks dipping into a marvellous collection of letters which you might have seen me mentioning on Twitter or Instagram!! The subject is a poet who’s made a number of appearances on the Ramblings, whether in passing as I explored Morden Tower and the Newcastle poets, or when I wrote about his actual work itself. I have only dipped my toe into what he’s written, but have been much impressed; and as he had such a eventful and interesting life, I was extremely keen to read the letters. These have been collected together by another author who’s appeared on the Ramblings, Alex Niven; a professor at Newcastle University, he’s also written a number of books, and I’ve explored his “Newcastle, Endless” and “New Model Island” in the past. So this volume brings together two writers whose work I’ve enjoyed in “Letters of Basil Bunting”, selected and edited by Alex Niven – and what an epic and involving read it was!

Basil Cheesman Bunting was born in Northumberland in 1900 and after an eventful life ended up back in his native area, where he died in 1985. He witnessed many of the changes which took place in the 20th century, which makes reading these letters a particularly immersive experience as you follow him through the decades. His life can be split broadly into three sections, which is the approach Niven adopts here, with the letters covering ‘Late Spring (1920-1938)’, ‘Midway (1939-1963)’ and ‘Revival (1964-1985). In the first period, after his early years as a conscientious objector (which brought a prison sentence), Bunting travelled Europe and he fell in with a Modernist circle which included Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky. poets who would end up as Bunting’s life-long friends. He married an american woman, Marian, and they lived a peripatetic life, much of it in the Canary Islands, where Bunting continued to write and explored/translated ancient Persian poetry. However, he struggled to publish and make ends meet; the marriage failed and Marian took their children back to America.

…travel broadens the mind. Travel to the U.S.A. also embitters it.

The middle years saw Bunting taking a different path; during WW2 he served with British Military Intelligence in Persia, and after the war eventually left Government service to become a correspondent for The Times. However, his second marriage, to an underage Kurdish girl, caused him to be fired by the British Embassy, and the family returned to the north, settling in Newcastle and making a pittance working for the Newcastle Chronicle. However, in the 1960s, thanks to the efforts of Tom Pickard, a Northern poet who sought out Bunting and brought his work to a wider, younger audience, Basil had a resurgence of writing and produced his epic masterpiece “Briggflatts”. He was much lauded, but perhaps not so much understood; and although his status became that of a revered, elder poet in some circles, he never really transitioned to becoming a public name, like Eliot or Pound. His star rose and fell over the years, and in many ways he still is a poet who’s not that well known.

Alex Niven has spent a decade in researching and preparing this marvellous collection of letters, drawn from a wide number of locations, and by necessity he’s had to be selective. As he makes clear in his lengthy and detailed introduction, his intention was to “create a comprehensive and readable first edition of Bunting’s letters” which he’s certainly done here, pulling just under 200 of the 800 existing letters into his book. The main correspondents gathered here, particularly in the early years, are Pound and Zukofsky; as well as their friendships, there is of course much discussion of poetic practice, opinions shared on the writings of others, and reflections on the poetry of the past. Ezra’s wife Dorothy is also a regular contact, and Bunting seems to have maintained a friendship with her too. Of course, this is one side of the picture as, according to Niven, it seems that Bunting destroyed most letters sent to him, so unless carbons are held elsewhere we can only read his side of things.

It is true that we are hampered by our miserable Cabinet. But I think if the Cabinet does not display an energy equivalent to that the people are showing, it will simply be overwhelmed & disappear before long. With decent leadership & such a spirit as they are showing now, the English would hardly, I think, be able to stop with merely checking Hitler: they would be bound to impose their hegemony on all Western Europe. (1940)

But what a life these letters reveal! Bunting was an unsettled man, drawn to the East, and would happily it seems have spent his time living on a boat and travelling the seas – he often seems like a man in search of a permanent home. His years spent in Persia (as it was then) seem amongst the happiest, and although he’s sometimes vague about what he was up to out there and during the war (there are hints of spying), it does seem a period when he had less in the way of money worries and a comfortable personal life. The early and latter years feature the recurring theme of money, as Bunting does seem to have struggled with income for much of his life, and of course had two families to provide for at varying times. And although the majority of the letters touch on matters poetic, there is much about the personal which creeps in. Bunting’s sadness about the early death of his first son, Rustam, whom he never actually met, is very moving; and there are touching later letters to the daughters of his first marriage, with whom he seems to have been out of contact for many years. Inevitably, the final pages of the book are tinged with melancholy, when you witness Bunting dealing with the effects of old age and isolation; things that come to us all eventually, alas…

As you say, my taste for variety has certainly been gratified in this war. I have been on almost every British front worth being on except Dunkirk, travelled through every rank from Aircraftsman First Class to Squadron-Leader (equals Major, to forestall your question), seen huge chunks of the world that I wouldn’t otherwise have visited, been sailor, balloon-man, drill instructor, interpreter, truck driver in the desert, intelligence officer of several kinds, operations officer to a busy fighter squadron, recorder of the doings of nomadic tribes, labour manager, and now consul in a more or less crucial post. How I got it I don’t know. (1945)

The correspondence with Pound is, unsurprisingly, particularly revelatory, with Bunting standing his ground whilst in a very difficult position. Both Zukofsky (who was Jewish) and Pound (whose anti-semitic views were becoming more and more pronounced) were close friends, and Bunting was somewhat caught in the middle of the two. He makes his feelings clear to Pound (and although the correspondence here is one-sided, Niven does give details of the kind of response Pound gave at points); this did lead to conflict and falling-out, and Bunting’s refusal to give in to racism and loyalty to Zukofsky is notable. His views changed with the times, too, and according to the circumstances in which he found himself. His early communist leanings became tempered with experiences of WW2, the recognition of Stalin’s real nature, and the general corruption in the world around him.

The focus of the letters definitely changes in the third section, where Bunting is experiencing renewed creativity, mingling with a wide range of fellow poets and literati, and teaching at a number of different universities around the world; certainly, his later years brought new and interesting opportunities, and it’s fascinating to see him reflecting on these. The 1960s found Bunting lauded by counter-culture poets such as Allan Ginsberg, friends with other regional poets like David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid, and although he does play things down, he was obviously held in high repute in the 1960s and the 1970s. The 1980s, however, seem more difficult; separate from Sima, his second wife, and moving from cottage to cottage in search of somewhere to live, this was quite an unsettled existence for a man of his age. The money worries kept on coming, and after the creative urge behind ‘Briggflatts’, Bunting struggled to write more. His death at the age of 85 left him with a complex legacy, as much of his life is shrouded in mystery; as Niven points out early on in the collection, when Bunting makes an obscure three word aside about a personal event, this really “brings home how little we really know of the minutiae of BB’s early years”. Additionally, his poetic achievements came in fits and starts, which may well be why he’s still relatively unknown. Interestingly, Niven has opined elsewhere that it may well be the regional basis of Bunting’s work and the perception of him that’s the issue, and certainly the literary and poetic world in the UK is probably as London-centric as are so many other fields of the arts.

Hugh MacDiarmid stayed with me. I was warned that he ate nothing but whiskey, and he justified the warning. As near as I can calculate he drank 3½ bottles during his 36 hours on Tyneside, which he ballasted with two boiled eggs, a small spoonful of curry, and a piece of toast. Leaving for Manchester, he complained of stomach qualms, which he attributed to the curry – “rich oriental food I’m not used to.” Turnbull and I put him to bed at 3.30 a.m. the first night. The second he was capable and coherent at midnight. But I liked the old guy very well… (1965)

Any collection of letters needs slow and careful reading, and I’ve made sure not to rush this particular volume; but travelling through the century along with Bunting was a fascinating experience. Reading a collection of letters brings you close to someone in a way a biography often can’t, so it can really enhance what you know and feel about a writer (my reading of Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries back in the days is comparable experience). As well as being an excellent editor, Niven is also an erudite and sensitive commentator on the contents of the letters, which can sometimes be a little abstruse; and the helpful glossary of names at the back of the book makes sure you can keep track of just who is who.

My modest collection of Bunting and related books.

“Letters of Basil Bunting” is an exemplary collection and a gold-standard example of how to put together a volume of letters; the amount of work which has gone into what is a major work of scholarship (as well as being incredibly readable) is, frankly, epic. Whether exploring his thoughts on poetry, arguing about economics or just moaning about lack of money and the stupidity of editors, Bunting is a fascinating correspondent and Niven is to be applauded for bringing these letters to a wider audience. There is so much more I could say about this collection, and what an achievement it is, but this post is long enough. However, I will close with the thought that Basil Bunting is still not well-enough known in this country, and hopefully the release of this marvellous collection of his letters will do much to improve that position!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

If you want to explore more about Basil Bunting, there’s a very interesting discussion of his work on YouTube, featuring Alex Niven, and you can find that here.

Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

“Morbid nostalgia is the evil twin of technological modernity.” @Alex_Niven @RepeaterBooks #NonFicNov

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As I’ve probably said before many a time, one of my favourite things as a reader is when you randomly stumble across something really wonderful which takes you off on a reading tangent and down a wormhole of exploration. That happened with me recently, when I came across mention of “Newcastle, Endless” on Twitter, which I promptly sent off for, loved and reviewed here. Needless to say, I felt the need to explore more of author Alex Niven‘s work and a quick check online revealed his recent book“New Model Island” (which was mentioned in “Newcastle…”). Lovely Blackwells obliged and it was another book I felt needed to bypass the TBR mountain; I seem to be doing a lot of that lately…

“New Model Island” was published by Repeater Books in 2019, so is writing about a pre-pandemic world; and its subtitle, “How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England”, reveals just what an interesting work it is. Taking a dramatic starting point of the opinion that England and Englishness don’t actually exist, Niven sets out to explore the void at the centre of the mythologies and stereotypes perpetrated by the mass media. The 20th century cliche of tea, crumpets and cricket is most definitely a construct, and a dig deeper into the past of the humans living on what Niven calls our archipelago of islands reveals a past built out of many different peoples from different backgrounds and with radically different living experiences than the patriotic rhetoric would suggest.

To be English is to feel hemmed in, straitjacketed, resentful of neighbours, and ready to direct political anger at the nearest adjacent target (women, immigrants, benefit claimants, or even just the normative working class) rather than the real source of one’s actual imagined impoverishment: so often the millionaire beneficiary of old or new money, who lives in a large house hidden by trees on the edge of town.

The structure of the book is fascinating; Niven mixes his theories with personal memoir and experience, focusing strongly on his friendship with the writer, music critic, cultural theorist, philosopher and teacher Mark Fisher, one of the founders of Zero Books, who took his own life in 2017. That loss has a dramatic effect on Niven, and as well as drawing on Fisher’s theories, he explores the whole history of Zero books. That history took another turn recently, as Repeater have apparently bought back Zero Books so as to be wholly independent again. Interestingly, I have a number of Zero titles on my shelves and was prompted to dig them out again…

My original Zero books from many moons ago – the Hatherley was the first I obtained…

But I digress. The author, therefore, has a strong political lean to the left (with which I empathise…) and is happy to take on any number of sacred cows (Orwell and Billy Bragg included!) Niven’s historical knowledge of the history of our archipelago is impressive, and he ranges widely, drawing into his discussion anything from Basil Bunting’s “Briggflatts” to Alton Towers, where he identifies the void at the heart of England. The chapter on this is perhaps unexpected, but fascinating…

If England really exists, it does so in a highly limited sense that can only be clearly glimpsed at ostentatiously hidden sites like Alton Towers, sites that would probably rather be forgotten by advocates of both the convervative-pastoral myth of Englishness, and the modern liberal fantasy that England is a sophisticated multicultural democracy with just a couple of minor problems.

Having explored that void, he then advances his radical idea of how to restructure our lands, by splitting it into two large and equally resourced administrative areas, with a divide running diagonally from the north east down to Wales, thereby creating a north and west triangle to balance the south and east, where power lies at the moment. It’s a revolutionary concept, but one that certainly makes more sense that the current so-called government’s mealy-mouthed talk of ‘levelling-up” which is basically meaningless.

Towards the end of the book, Niven explores the then current political situation, seeing hope in the coming of Corbyn to Labour, and a possible end to Tory monopoly in sight. Alas, that was not to be, and the last few pages of the book reminded me of a time when I’d dared to hope this country was moving towards a fairer society, instead of what Niven describes as “a confused, post-imperial half-nation founded on structures of monarchism, financial services and rentier capitalism.”

Although superficially about a very different topic to “Newcastle, Endless”, it’s clear that Niven’s ideas and beliefs suffuse both works and I found his narrative gripping. No, there aren’t sheaves of post-its sticking out of my copy – there was so much which stimulated my brain that I had to keep jotting down things in a notebook! As a Scot, and therefore an outsider, I perhaps found the arguments easier to appreciate than someone born in e.g. the south east of the country would; but it’s worth approaching the book with an open mind as this will really bring rewards. “New Model Island” is an invigorating and thought-provoking work which buzzes with ideas; and its wonderful blend of the personal and the political means that the book is never a dry, academic work. Instead, it makes compelling reading and puts forward a really fascinating blueprint for a new structure on our islands which would ensure a fairer distribution of control and therefore wealth for everyone. A utopian concept, maybe, but one that really should be considered seriously…

*****

I’ll claim this title for Non-Fiction November, and highly recommend it and “Newcastle, Endless” if you want to have your thoughts provoked! Needless to say, I’ve felt the need to track down two more Niven titles (published by Zero Books back in the day – thank you again, wonderful Blackwells). These sound just as interesting as the two Nivens I’ve read! 😀

“…I was celestially kissed…” @Alex_Niven @CanalsidePress #newcastleendless

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Something a little different on the Ramblings today, as I share my thoughts on a lovely little indie publication which straddles several genres! “Newcastle, Endless” by Alex Niven was a title I stumbled across on Twitter (such a bad influence for books), and I was intrigued. I reviewed “The Book of Newcastle” back at the beginning of 2020, and related in that post my connection with the city via a visit many moons ago. Being an exiled Scot, I’m always drawn north anyway, and I’ve explored the work of the Morden Tower poets too. I thought Niven’s book sounded like it might be an essential adjuct to these readings, and I wasn’t wrong.

“Newcastle, Endless” is published by Canalside Press, and is a beautiful little edition which as well as containing Niven’s verses, also features colour images of the city by Euan Lynn, a prologue from Adam Sharr, and an afterword by Patrick Lynch, Editor and Publisher at Canalside. The poems explore the architecture and landscape of the city, an every-changing one, with the supporting texts focusing on the effects on the city structure of T. Dan Smith. The latter was an idealistic leader of the Labour Newcastle City Council in the 1960s, and although he was brought down by scandal it’s clear that his intentions for the city were sound ones. So the verse is divided into sections, interspersed with extracts from Smith’s autobiography, and the resulting book is a fascinating mixture of poetry, architecture, politics and history.

Niven is a lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University, as well as a regular contributor to a variety of publications and author of another very interesting sounding book I may have to track down. His verse is a variation on the sonnet form, but lacking punctuation, which makes it beautiful and hypnotic to read. There’s also one poem which takes a more tradition ballad form and it’s very moving – this is the opening verse:

Once I was a man of light
The day was early in my head
But now my heart is with the night
And all my dreams are of the dead

Other verses explore city locations such as the Civic Centre, Fenwick’s department store, Grainger Town and the Tyne Bridge. As one of the pithy quotes from Smith points out, we love water and mountains and things which appear to exist ‘naturally’ but are often offended by built landscapes – why is that, he wonders, and are we capable of integrating our constructions into a landscape so that they belong there? I think that’s probably something town planners are still trying to work out (if they actually think about what they’re doing nowadays, instead of just allowing anything interesting to be torn down and any old thing to be thrown up…)

I found “Newcastle, Endless” to be one of those unexpected, serendipitous discoveries, where you find a book purely by chance and it turns out to be quite brilliant. As a meditation on the changes in Niven’s city, it’s moving; the poems are lyrically engaging and lovely; and historical elements intriguing. And as well as being fascinating to read, it’s a beautiful object in its own right, with the images complementing the text and the extra material enhancing the whole experience of reading – I shall have to take a look at the rest of Canalside’s books. Anyway, this turned out to be a wonderful and evocative read which really made me think about the landscapes in which we live. Highly recommended and I’m off to see what Niven’s other book is about… ;D

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