Friday, 29 January 2010

OK, it's official. At the age of 32 I have turned into a grumpy old man. How do I know this? Because last night I celebrated Egypt's 4-0 victory over Algeria in the African Nations Cup not because I give a damn about Egypt - I have never visited the country, have no Egyptian friends and have never seen their team play a match - but because it would allow me to have a good night's sleep. So as not to turn into a racist old bugger at the same time let me state that my policy of supporting whoever is playing against Algeria has nothing to do with the country or the team but with their supporters' habit of celebrating victory by tooting their horns all night. My problem is not with Algeria in fact (French fans celebrate in the same way after all) but with cars. They are noisy and dirty and dangerous and in an ideal city they would have a very limited place. Boris Vian said as much in his 1958 essay "Paris est dégueulasse" where he set out two proposals to ameliorate the quality of the air and hence of people's lives:

1er projet de loi : interdiction dans Paris et dans toute ville de plus de 5 000 habitants d'utiliser des véhicules à moteur autre qu'électrique ou à air comprimé, et en général, tous véhicules produisant des émanations non respirables en tout ou partie.

2e projet de loi : obligation de conserver dans une ville au moins vingt mètres carrés d'espaces verts par personne. On entend par espaces verts des herbages, des taillis, des buissons, des massifs d'arbres, etc. Mais on ne considérera pas une voie de circulation bordée d'arbres comme un espace vert.

I would go further than Vian though. My worry is that the growth of the electric car (give it ten years or so, the time it takes for the price of petrol to go through the roof) will prevent people from seeing that the car itself is the problem. Sure an electric car would be cleaner and quieter than a combustion one but it would still be dangerous, would still block traffic for buses, taxis and delivery vans and would still be equipped with a horn that people would use to celebrate the victory of their national team at football. And while electric cars would be better for the environment what would be best for the environment would be for millions of people to realize that they do not actually need to own a ton of metal, glass and plastic.

But for that to happen will require not just new laws and better public transportation but a change in people's mentalities and an abandoning of the myths that the car embodies. Because if people were to consider the question rationally I don't think anyone in Paris would own a car. The time spent in traffic jams, the time spent looking for a parking spot, the money spent on registration, maintenance and fuel; all of this ought to have persuaded Parisians long ago to abandon their cars. It is quicker and cheaper to travel by public transport, to cycle or to walk. And if you don't like being exposed to other people or the weather then take a taxi. A new car costs somewhere in the region of 10.000 euros just to buy. Add on loan repayments, taxes and fuel and you could take a taxi to and from work for the next five years, by which time your car will have broken down and you will have to have it repaired. The appeal of the car is irrational and if one is to undermine that appeal one must attack not the car itself but the subconscious process that makes us consider certain human desires - autonomy, spontaneity, self-determination, family unity, sexiness - to be embodied in the car. I can feel a poem coming on.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Happy Birthday Mr President

Nicolas Sarkozy turned 55 today. His birthday celebrations will doubtless have been ruined by the news that his rival, Dominique de Villepin, has been acquitted in the Clearstream libel case. One of the first things Sarkozy did on coming to power in 2007 was to eliminate two of his most powerful opponents: the centrist Socialist politician, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was sent off to lead the IMF and the right-winger, de Villepin, who was sent before the courts. The accusation against de Villepin was highly complicated but the essence of it was that he had knowingly circulated false documents which implied that Sarkozy had an illegal, undeclared bank account in Luxembourg. The courts ruled that there was no way of proving that de Villepin had circulated this information and no way of proving that he had deliberately concealed its fraudulent nature. I am delighted by this outcome. Not because I believe passionately in de Villepin's innocence - he like Sarkozy is perfectly capable of playing dirty - but because a president who himself appoints the prosecuting magistrate and who benefits from judicial immunity has no place bringing cases before the courts. This whole affair was a colossal waste of money and more importantly a colossal abuse of the judicial system.

The Paris literary journal UPSTAIRS AT DUROC is proud to invite you to the

Launch Reading for Issue #11

Come hear exciting new work by four of our contributors:



At: Berkeley Books of Paris , 8 rue Casimir Delavigne , 75006 Paris, Métro Odéon.

Thursday, January 28, 2010, 7 PM.

Jérôme Mauche is the author of Électuaire du discount (Le Bleu du ciel, 2004), as well as of many other books and chapbooks, including Le Placard en flammes, La Maison Bing and Fenêtre, porte et façade. He directs the poetry collection "Grands soirs" with Les Petits Matins publishers, and curates reading series for the Musée Zadkine and the Ménagerie de Verre, in Paris .

Jennifer K. Dick, from Iowa , is the author of Fluorescence ( Univ. of Georgia Press , 2004), the chapbook Retina/Rétine (Estepa Editions, Paris, 2005) and the BlazeVox eBook Enclosures. Her poetry translations appear in the anthology New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008) and in journals. Several of her translations of Jérôme Mauche's prose poems appear in Upstairs at Duroc's Issue 11.

Richard Toovey is an architect and translator who has lived in Berlin since 1989. He helped found Bordercrossing Berlin magazine, chairs the Creative Writing Group e.V. and assists with the Poetry Hearings festival. His poetry, which has been commended in the Arvon Competition and nominated for the Forward Prize, appears most recently in Orbis, The Salzburg Review and The SHOp.

Bonny Finberg's chapbook of short stories, How the Discovery of Sugar Produced the Romantic Era (Sisyphus Press) was featured on the DVD 5 GuysRead Finberg. Her work appears in Evergreen Review, The Brooklyn Rail, four Unbearables Anthologies, Lost and Found: New York Stories from Mr. Beller's Neighborhood and Best American Erotica. She has been translated into French, Hungarian and Japanese.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The sun all morning hid behind clouds
and Moody's graded Iceland junk.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Clammy clam,
palourde pâle.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

So much of my life spent
looking at pictures of soldiers.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Soft Keys

Have just finished Soft Keys by Michael Symmons Roberts and it's marvelous. This was his first collection - he has since published four more and two books of prose - and has recently been reissued by Jonathan Cape. It is a very fine book and as a first collection is breath-taking; I don't know if Roberts had published much before this in the way of pamphlets and individual poems but the poems are so highly accomplished technically and show such seriousness of thought that it is clear a large amount of preparation and hard work had gone into this. This ain't your typical first collection. Sure there are some poems that read a bit like writing exercises; "Replica" or "To Skin a Tree" will probably not make it into his Selected Poems. But there are equally pieces that show a great maturity and seem to have burst forth Athenalike and fully formed. "Messiaen in Görlitz" is a beautiful, serious poem and treats ambitious subject matter (remember Roberts was only thirty at the time this book came out) with the musicality and grace which, when properly handled, allows poetry to broach topics that song or philosophy might otherwise fight shy of. "Hosea Thomas in the Realm of Miracles" is another fine example of Roberts' religious sensibility and technical mastery and reads like something out of Tom Waits or Flannery O'Connor.

But even when he bites off smaller chunks of material the result is rarely bland; so the potentially treacherous territory of an old man talking about his allotment which one imagines 999 out of 1000 poets would turn into something cringe-worthy becomes in Roberts' hands a meditation on the terrifying power of the earth indiscriminately to recycle whatever we put into it.

This is the open, naked girl
ripped from a magazine left
on the allotments. My digging
was delayed by rain, I watched her
mouth fill up with water,
and her legs, funnelling.
She held a look of ecstasy
as I spaded her into the mud


This is the child who was
beaten lifeless, left in a quiet river,
washed up on to the edge of the soil.
I had seen her running away
with the man whose cold hands
were printed on her neck when I found her.
Within a day she was part of my soil.
Her crop was young, fresh and green.

The ending of this poem - "I am the man who can tame the earth,/can make it rise through/my little patch of ground" - makes it clear that he is talking too about his own craft; about the greedy, omnivorous appetite of the poet and of the mess, the ugliness and the horror that goes into creating the "smokeless fuel for the quiet man's night".

There were only two false notes for me in this collection: the long, final poem "The Hookses" (one wonders if this was a filler insisted on by his editor; at any rate it seems slight and over-narrative and stylistically the use of white space and thin lines seem more like experiments with the tab and return keys than intrinsic parts of the poem) and the first section of "Simone and the Unknown Friend" where Roberts imagines the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil playing arcade games in Torquay. The tone here is silly and one wishes he had started with section two as the rest of this poem is first rate. There is something slightly patronising too, I find, in the supposition that British readers will need to have a foreign figure stuck in a British landscape if they are to recognize her. In Roberts' defense, when this book was written in 1993 there was no Google and virtually no internet so perhaps he was worried that readers would not know who Weil was and would skip over what is an important part of the collection. But there were surely less goofy ways to introduce her than this.

These few quibbles aside this is an excellent book and confirms the opinion I had after reading the magisterial Corpus (and which had wavered slightly after reading the good but not stunning Burning Babylon and The Half Healed) that Michael Symons Roberts is one of the finest poets currently working in the British Isles.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Well done to Google for standing up to China. In the Copenhagen negotiations and then more recently in the dispute with Britain over the execution of the mentally ill British national, Akmal Shaikh, China has been intent on proving what we knew but chose to ignore before: that it doesn't have to bow to anyone. In times gone by the only country in any position (economically if not necessarily morally) to exert any pressure on China has been the United States but now that China holds over 800 billion dollars in US foreign debt the Obama administration finds its hands, if not tied, then not quite as flexible as it would like. And what is true for the US is true in other ways for every government - China is such an important trade power that they are loathe to criticise it too overtly, or if they do criticise it they are unlikely to follow up with any sanctions for fear of China taking retaliatory measures. This was clear in the Shaikh case - the UK fustigated and fumed but ultimately did nothing. So it is nice to see a private company like Google step in where states fear to tread. Doubtless Google carried out a thorough analysis of the financial consequences of their decision - the lost revenues in China will presumably be compensated for by some serious PR points at a moment when the search engine is coming in for a lot of criticism for its monopolistic tendencies and disregard for authors' rights - but in business as in politics there are no pure decisions so kudos to Google for taking a stand.

Monday, 4 January 2010


Listening to noises
from the flat upstairs.