Salman Rushdie and the Establishment of the Left

Couple of years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a memoir of his time in hiding from the Iranian fatwa. It’s called “Joseph Anton”, and I had read two-thirds of it when I decided to give up. It wasn’t badly written. It was just depressing me a bit, and I couldn’t understand why.

Yes, Rushdie comes over as being something of a wanker. He is shifty and inauthentic and views himself and his books as actual bulwarks of Western literature – except when it doesn’t suit him, and he just wants to be an ordinary person again. He seems constitutionally incapable of acknowledging any other point of view but his own, and I don’t mean simply on the fatwa but on anything. His wives are wrong, the police are wrong, the public, the media, his publishers, all wrong. Apart from his son, an idealised portrait of beatific childhood lifted wholesale from one of those Victorian melodramas which end with the infant being bodily assumed into Heaven, everybody in the world is at best a coward and at worst a monster. The consistent leitmotif of the book is that anyone whose interests diverge however minutely from the agenda of Salman Rushdie gets it both barrels.

None of which I mind, by the way. The character of “Joseph Anton” (Rushdie’s pseudonym throughout his years in hiding, and a decent indication of where he sees himself in the canon) is a magical piece of comic caricature, right up there with Adrian Mole and Mister Pooter. Rushdie’s lack of self-awareness never quite grows endearing, but it is usually funny, except when he is being gratuitously mean to and/or about someone who has helped him but not enough, which he usually is. No, what I found depressing about “Joseph Anton” was the absence from its pages of any kind of ordinary person – by which I mean someone who is unlikely to have went to Oxbridge or to public school.

The ‘ordinary’ people in “Joseph Anton” are the kind of off-stage rabble you get in village hall productions of Les Miserables. You don’t see them, you rarely hear them, and if they play any significant part in the story at all it is in the nameless role of “the waitress” or “the driver”. They are invariably slack and incompetent, with the implication continually being made that Rushdie’s life is dependent upon the random bumblings of ‘these kinds’ of people. There are several moving passages in which Rushdie speaks about the indignity of having to hide in his room whenever a cleaner comes round. The indignity of having to clean other people’s houses for a living goes strangely unremarked upon.

And what makes “Joseph Anton” interesting is that, finally, it all boils down to human dignity, a subject about which Salman Rushdie has an awful lot to say. Specifically, the circumstances in which it is impossible to maintain one’s dignity. There are things, Rushdie comes to realise, which are basic human rights, and which it is intolerable to be expected to live without. These are some of the rights for which Rushdie makes fairly explicit provision.

  1. The right to freedom of speech.
  2. The right to spend time with your family.
  3. The right to live and work wherever you like.
  4. The right to go on foreign holidays, anywhere, anytime.
  5. The right to go to awards ceremonies, and receive awards.
  6. The right to have your book published to your exact specifications and timetable, regardless of the potential economic, moral or human cost.

And so on. You will have no doubt have noticed that most, perhaps even all of these rights are currently denied to the average citizen of the United Kingdom. Rushdie doesn’t. For the vast majority of the book, Rushdie and his web of Oxbridge contacts are making strenuous appeal for the author to be allowed to live an ordinary life. The problem is, the disconnect between Rushdie’s idea of a ‘normal’ life and anybody else’s is so vast that it feels as if you are being personally insulted on every single page – which you probably would be, by the way, if you’d met him.

It is just an accepted fact that folk like, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie are ‘men of the left’ – but what does it actually mean? Well, what reading “Joseph Anton” has made me realise is that it means exactly fuck all. It means that they are part of a familial squabble which, to the extent that it is happening at all, is taking place in an entirely different room and has nothing to do with the rest of us. Because the Establishment has a left wing as well. It’s the left to which writers, journalists, Labour politicians and the BBC belong. It is a left which is concerned with culture and heritage and being kind to animals and other such vague and worthy generalisations. It is a left which behaves as if the important battles against poverty and privilege have already been won, because, of course, those battles have been won, at least to the satisfaction of Amis and company; and they are therefore perfectly entitled to spend the rest of human history in public school debates about whether the Turner Prize winner is art this year or not.

To the Establishment Left, politics is basically extra-curricular. It’s something you do for extra credits instead of cricket. There’s nothing at stake. “Joseph Anton” is a book about a man who finds, to his horror, that everything is at stake; that his life depends upon the one box out of a million which an unseen bureaucrat might choose to tick that day, or might not. In other words, Salman Rushdie wakes up one morning to find that his life is now, well, ordinary.

Or almost. Rushdie still has his friends. He meets the Prime Minister. He meets the President. The Tory government are too busy dismantling the welfare state to talk to any of the people whose lives they’ve ruined, but they talk to Rushdie. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, presumably did not have the ear of the Prime Minister of Japan, and is stabbed to death. Rushdie has the same reaction to this as he does to every other tragedy that comes of the fatwa, which is one part unconvincing regret to four parts defensive insistence that it’s not his fault.

And it isn’t, of course. The Kafka parallels are obvious. For all his faults, Rushdie has not actually done anything wrong. But unlike Joseph K, ‘Joseph Anton’ affects to have no conception whatsoever that he might have done anything wrong, ever. And that’s interesting. Very few of us, except maybe psychopaths and leaders, have led such blameless lives that, when something terrible happens to us, we have no cosmic inkling that we might have had it coming. Is that, in the end, what separates us from the Establishment? Is that all it is – guilt?

Call for Submissions – Selkirk Match Programmes.

As part of my residency at Selkirk FC, the club and I have been looking for ways to involve more poets with the team. We’ll be doing a few things over the course of the coming season, but to kick things off we’re starting up a section in our match programme just for poems relating to football.

Picture credit - Dave Scott
Photo credit – Dave Scott

I’ve always kind of felt like football programmes are the zenith of Western literature, and it’s been a huge thrill to see my poetry published in them this season. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and so every home programme for the rest of the season we’ll be publishing a different football-related poem from a guest poet.

We have a few guests already lined up, but we’re on the look-out for more, so if you have a poem you’d be interested in seeing published, please do send it in to tommy.clark[at]btinternet.com. In terms of length, 30 lines is probably about the limit of what we’ll have room for. Previously published poems are fine, and if your poem is relevant in any way to Selkirk, all the better. But the important thing (duh) is that it should be directly related to football.

Our next home game is on November 14th, so realistically that will be the deadline for submissions. We can’t offer any payment, but we will send a free copy of the programme to contributors! It’s a fine publication, which can hopefully only be made better by the inclusion of more poetry.

There’s nothing nicer than just happening across one of your own poems in a bookstore, or on a magazine rack. Unless it’s finding one of your own poems in a football memorabilia store. Well, here’s your chance to make that happen.

“Intae the Snaw” book launch.

The launch for “Intae the Snaw” – and my wife Sara Clark’s novel, “Summer’s Lease” went fabulously. In addition to a whole host of friends, family, and miscellaneous well-wishers, we were immensely privileged to be introduced by Paul Wheelhouse MSP.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk a bit about the Scots language, which it always seems cheeky to do at ordinary readings – the video of my speech (and my reading) is below. The book itself also contains an introductory essay on Scots in the modern world, if you’re interested in finding out more!

Start-up Magazines and the Borders Writing Scene.

I’ve been writing and thinking a great deal about poetry magazines lately, and part of the reason for that is we seem to be going through something of a literary Golden Age as far as literary journals go. Certainly up here in Scotland, anyway, where there’s been a real proliferation of magazine start-ups attempting to cater to a different sort of audience. I’m thinking about mags like The Grind, The Poets’ Republic and The Write Angle, magazines with a DIY ethic/aesthetic, superb writing and, most interestingly of all, a definite regional identity. By this I don’t mean simply that they’re ‘parochial’ – what I’m getting at is that these kinds of magazines are at the heart of a particular local scene, whether it’s that of Falkirk, Glasgow or Stonehaven.

That interests me, principally because no such magazine exists in the Borders, or ever has, as far as I know. There are many possible reasons for that, most of which are too depressing to contemplate, but what I’d be most interested to find out is which way round these things are apt to happen – does a thriving local literary scene bring about the existence of a magazine, or is the magazine itself the prerequisite for bringing together a viable writing community?

This is not, by the by, a rhetorical question. If there’s anyone out there who has some thoughts, I would love to hear them. You see, I’ve been having a wee think lately about setting up a Borders equivalent to the kinds of magazines I mentioned above, and the idea, to me, seems like a good one. There’s definitely a ton of great writing out there which is currently going unpublished – I don’t think for one moment that the market is saturated quite yet. But a magazine would also be a great conduit for linking up the Borders writing scene with that of the rest of the country.

The Borders has a great deal to offer Scotland, in literary terms; there are some fantastic individuals writing out of here. And there’s a lot going on, albeit in an often piecemeal kind of way. But there isn’t really much in the way of overall cultural structure or strategy. A literary magazine could not only serve as a kind of focal point around which to cohere a community, but it would also open up the two-way conversation we need to be having with the rest of the country (that’s you guys out there) about what we could be bringing to your party, and what you could be bringing to ours.

So, that’s the plan. You’re probably safe to go away now and get on with a few things. Do the washing up. Get the mould out of the windowsill. But, you know. Somewhere along the line. Watch this space.

On Starting Out.

My first poetry pamplet, Intae the Snaw, comes out this month, and it seems like this is the point at which to start giving it the whole it’s-been-a-long-road shtick, talk about how deep into theIntaeTheSnaw fibre of my bones I’ve had to dig to excavate these poems, the editorial to-and-fro. But, in fact, the whole process has been relatively disappointing, as far as personal psychodramas go. From first contact to final product the entire business has taken nine months, and as far as editorial conflict enters into it, all that’s happened is that I’ve been very gently schooled by my editor, the fantastic Meirion Jordan, in the difference between putting together an actual collection and just jamming an armful of manuscripts in a tattered suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid.

So, in a sense, I’ve really got exactly zip to say about the process of putting together a pamphlet. I imagine the production of other collections in other places have been rather more fraught affairs, but that’s not my experience. My experience has been fun. Maybe Gatehouse Press are doing it wrong, or something. My suspicion is that I’ve been somehow short-changed, that there ought to have been more shoutings-at, more tears.

The main thing I’ve taken out of the process is the value of reading and submitting to poetry magazines. When you’re first starting out, you get this advice rammed down your throat, and it just seems like a pretext for other poets to bilk you out of your money whilst telling you how rubbish you are. Which it is. (No, not really.) There are a load of reasons, as a writer, to engage with the magazine scene – track record, peer feedback, yada yada – but the reason that many folk who are starting out submit to magazines is because they kind of hope something might come of it.

Which is not, by the way, an ignoble thing to wish for. It’s not even unrealistic, so long as you don’t expect anything to happen the first time you get into a magazine, or the fifth, or the five hundredth. If there’s something to what you’re writing, someone will notice, eventually. The problem is, you don’t know who or where those people are, never mind what magazines they edit and/or read.

In the beginning it’s easy to have the feeling that the whole of “writing” is one vast cohesive bloc which is leagued entirely against newcomers, i.e. you. Conversely, when you do manage to get something published somewhere, it’s very difficult to understand why news of your success hasn’t spread like wildfire across the entire literary scene. Once you’re in, you’re in, surely? But somehow, The X Journal don’t care that you were in the most recent edition of Y Quarterly. As in Kafka, the door that you were trying to get through, and the doorman you were wheedling your way past – they just lead to another door, another doorman. The party that’s happening somewhere within sounds just as distant as ever.

And all of the above, by the way, being best case scenario – which is to say, that you’re committed to writing and to improving as a writer. If you already think you’re the finished article, you probably gave up on reading this a few paragraphs back. You didn’t like hearing that your inevitable fame might take time or hard work.

For time and hard work will certainly be involved. Even if you one-hundred-per-cent enjoy writing one-hundred-per-cent of the time, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to enjoy submitting to magazines, and being rejected; sometimes kindly, more often facelessly, occasionally even, in a bizarre Hitchcockian nightmare, under the wrong name, for stuff you never even did. And yet submit you must, widely and often, to have any hope of finding readers who get what you’re on about.

I had no particularly good reason to send my stuff to Lighthouse, Gatehouse’s literary journal. Scots translations of Chinese poetry; that’s pretty niche, and not necessarily what you would expect to go over well with a relatively new literary journal based in Norwich. But it was a really good magazine – I enjoyed what they were publishing – and it was worth a spin that if their editors and I liked the same kind of poetry, my poetry might also be the kind that they liked. Without reading Lighthouse, I would never have submitted there, never have been published there, and never have wound up with a pamphlet being produced there.

Which is to say, reading magazines shouldn’t be a chore. No matter how disenchanted you might think you are with the poetry scene, there are magazines out there whose editors are on your wavelength. Finding them, submitting to them, hopefully being published by them – these are hugely exciting things. Reading a magazine you don’t enjoy – well, that bites, but it’s better than submitting to that magazine blind, getting back an impersonal rejection letter, and then being furious at being turned down by a magazine you now realise you don’t even like.

Submitting to magazines can feel like going to them cap in hand, but it needn’t. Sending something you wrote to a journal is the sincerest form of flattery you can give what are (no doubt) its hard-working and underappreciated editors. I like what you are doing and I want to be part of it. And it’s in your power to give. Whether your writing is ready yet or not, your support and interest is worth a lot to any magazine. Just make sure and give it to the right ones.

Sky Sports.

The final score was not what we hoped for, but there was some good publicity for poetry and for the club this morning, when Sky Sports News profiled Selkirk FC ahead of our Scottish Cup tie against Nairn. I read out some of my poetry, and talked a wee bit about the cup – cheers to Lawrie Dunn for catching a photo of it! Link to full video below: http://www.skysports.com/watch/video/sports/10006295/scottish-cup-kicks-off

skysports

30 Days Later – The Poetry Residency So Far

So, that’s the first month of my poetry residency at Selkirk FC done with. Lessons learned:

  1. Writing poems is by far the easiest and least time-consuming aspect of the whole business. I’ve written about half-a-dozen so far, ranging from elegiac poems about past glories and figures like Bob Mercer, to freestyle disses of upcoming opponents. Most of these (so far) have been written to go with a newspaper article or media piece. Sky Sports News, for example, asked me to write a poem for their feature about our Scottish Cup game at Nairn. Now, how many folk are ever going to get to read their poetry on Sky bloody Sports? None, that’s how many. None.
  2. BUT. It’s very challenging to combine writing the poetry, doing the publicity, working in an ordinary nine-to-five job, and doing other writing of your own on the side. Your own writing seems to be the thing that’s most easily neglected.
  3. Still, because of those pressures, a residency is very good at forcing you to identify what you actually want to get out of writing.
  4. Being continually fresh and spontaneous is a lot harder than it looks. I’m the first person to give it the big eye-roll when someone trots out the same old anecdote more than once, but when you’re speaking to a lot of different people who are all asking basically the same questions, it’s really difficult not to just give out an answer by rote. Even as you’re talking, you can feel your silent inner critic sarcastically mouthing your trite little speech along with you and making a yap-yap gesture with its hand. You feel like such a dad.

But the reaction has been fantastic. Ross Anderson, the chairman at Selkirk, told me that more publicity has been generated for the club by the residency than even the signing of ex-Scotland striker Garry O’Connor. Hopefully, there will be more to come, but in the meantime, tune into Sky Sports News HQ on Saturday, when a Scottish Cup segment about Selkirk will be airing throughout the day.

The Stowed Out Festival

So it’s the day of the first ever spoken word stage at the Stowed Out Festival, the first ever event of this sort that I’ve organised, and I’m looking out the window that morning at the bucketing rain and I’m thinking to myself Is this good? Is this bad?

Because I have no idea what to expect, or what omens to hope for. In disaster movies, there’s at least a few ominous warning shots – a straining girder, a meter’s pointer edging towards red – but what are the key indicators that a poetry event is about to go all Towering Inferno? Silence, and space, and strangers, perhaps, as Larkin wrote – but when we get to the festival and the first face we see is Rab Wilson’s (“Just writin a wee poem,” he says, arising from a bench) we know there’s only so badly things can go. One by one, our poets arrive hours ahead of schedule – Colin Will and his wife Jane, with an assortment of dark luggage which, over the course of the afternoon, will miraculously unfold into a tenor sax set – and within half an hour there is the quorum of a festival, eight, nine, ten performers flattening out folded bits of paper and pacing around from tent to tent.

The organisers are up first – Bridget Khursheed gets things going with a flawless “no paper” performance, and by the time I get up we’ve already been joined by the first members of a continual thoroughfare of audience. Sara Clark finishes off the first set with some superb readings from her book “How to Destroy”, and although the rain beats briefly against the plastic squares of windows in the tent, everything seems to be turning out quite bright.

Anita John and Dorothy Alexander are next, with some brilliant pieces inspired by their work on various collaborative projects, chiefly “Scott’s Treasures” and “The Written Image”. Then it’s Pat Miller and David Holmes, two of the competitors in the Stowed Out Poetry Slam. We originally only had room on the timetable for the slam’s top three, but the standard was so high that we were delighted when the vagaries of music festival organisation opened up another slot, and we were able to fit in another couple of our slammers. Both Pat and David give performances at the festival even more impressive than they had at the slam, and as more and more people turn up to the festival the audience numbers continue to swell.

After the break, it’s the first of our three headliners, Rab Wilson. Rab starts off with a few works from his upcoming book “Zero Hours”, which bids fair to be his best collection yet, if these poems are anything to go by. Rab is just such a superb performer, really accomplished at taking audiences with him wherever he goes, and the emotional journey his readings take the listener upon make it seem impossible that only twenty-five minutes have passed when he finishes with a couple of ribald reflections on MacDiarmid and the status of the Scots language.

Colin Will, who has probably single-handedly boosted our audience numbers by 33% just by the presence of his sax, performs next. His sequence of sea poems, separated by some improvisational sax, are both haunting and beautiful. Colin tells us it’s something he hasn’t tried before, and it’s to be hoped that he adds it to his permanent repertoire, if only for the benefit of everyone who wasn’t there. It’s certainly the most powerful combination of poetry and music that I’ve encountered in a long time.

By now the tent is filling rapidly, and the biggest crowd of the festival is in attendance for the performances by our slam winners. Stuart Jones gives maybe the best performances of his career, and has passers-by stopping by in their droves to witness his lively and hilarious set. David Hendry’s quiet and reflective imagery brings a hush to the assembled and appreciative crowd, before Calum Bannerman unveils a new work of real imagination and intimacy, a superb way to bring the curtain down on this year’s spoken word stage. There is still more to come, of course, but it will be on the main stage, where Harry Giles, fresh from Fringe success, gives the kind of performance which makes it a privilege for anyone else to have shared a bill with him.

Poetry, performance poetry – they’re tough rackets, especially here in the Borders, where the support networks, if they exist at all, aren’t always apparent. Workshops and writing groups and the like are fine, but unless they’re very carefully managed they can still result in people being left out. We’re really chuffed at the way the Stowed Out Festival gave so many people a chance to be involved – over the course of the festival we had thirteen people perform, ranging from old hands to veritable first-timers. We had folk who’ve only performed once or twice in their life before alongside people who make a living out of it. And we had the start of an event which can surely only go on to be bigger and better as the years go by.

Poetry residency at Selkirk F.C.

My wife asked me the other day how often I think about football.

“Oh, about once every ten minutes,” I said.

It didn’t strike me as an excessive amount of time, but Sara could not get over it. Every ten minutes! Naturally the science is inexact, but if anything, every ten minutes is an underestimate. I don’t see myself at all as being obsessive, but to have been brought up in a certain place at a certain time (a west of Scotland council estate in the Eighties) is to have been raised in a church of questionable faiths, the primary of which is football. You can shake off your inherited religion, divest yourself of the prejudice of peers; but you can no more start at the front page of a newspaper than you can levitate from off the ground.

And, of course, I write a lot about football. I would go so far as to say that anything I write in which football does not figure feels to me like weird, fantastical sci-fi. So I’m absolutely thrilled to have been appointed poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC for the coming season.

Selkirk are a fantastic, forward-thinking club with huge ambitions and a very real commitment to doing things the right way. Not coincidentally, they’re also a great team to watch, and I’m hugely excited to be working with them.

What that will actually entail is something I’ll be discovering as I go along. Right now, the plan is to write some poems and so forth for the match programmes (I’ve already written a couple, published in today’s Scotsman) but bearing in mind what a unique opportunity this is to write about something I really love writing about, I’m sure I’ll have ideas aplenty.

In the meantime, if you’re local to the area and you haven’t been down to Yarrow Park yet, do stop by. You won’t regret it.