Archive for August, 2012

I have always loved Russian literature, from Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Anna Karenina to the short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The Russian greats have a quality of seriousness and urgency somehow; a richness it can be hard to find elsewhere.  Their literature is about how to live: the world and the soul.  And I think that those poets I love most – Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva – have a special quality partly because I discovered them through the lucid, haunting biographies of Elaine Feinstein.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Anna Akhmatova’s first collection Evening, which for me will always conjure scenes from Feinstein’s Anna of All The Russias – Akhmatova young and glittering (so beautiful Modigliani sketched her nude) stepping out into one of St Petersburg’s white nights, or reading at the ‘Stray Dog’ cellar with Mayakovsky or Mandelstam.  And then I think too, of course, of what came later: of her Requiem, composed secretly in her head and shared only with friends – the staggering bravery of it.

This week I have been rereading A Captive Lion, Feinstein’s biography of Tsvetayeva.  I first came across it in Manchester Library when I was 16, and ordered it from Hackney library this time: it is a shame that such a brilliant book is out of print.  Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetayeva seem to me wonderfully alive – so much better than those in the Selected I have on my shelf that I must buy her Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems.  It is in many ways a painful read: to see a poet of such gifts and integrity ground down by poverty and politics.  Soon before her suicide Tsvetayeva writes: ‘In the madhouse of the inhuman / I refuse to live. / With the wolves of the market place // I refuse to howl.’

It seemed appropriate to be reading of Tsvetayeva this week, during the Pussy Riot trial.  This morning I went to the Royal Court Theatre, and crowded into their café with hundreds of others to hear a rehearsed reading of the testimonies made on the 8th of August at the Khamovnichesky Court by Nadya Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich. It was one of the most powerful and important pieces of theatre I have seen.  You can read the testimonies here, translated by Sasha Dugdale.   I choked up as I heard Nadya’s defiant words:

‘The first men of the state stand in the cathedral with righteousness upon their faces, but their sins are far greater than ours. We did our punk performances because what reigns supreme in the Russian state is a caste system, a closed system, a system set in stone. And the politics are led by narrow corporate interests. So much so that even the air in Russia causes pain to us.’

Maria’s speech was also profoundly moving, drawing parallels between their own situation and that of Soviet dissidents:

I am extremely angered by the phrase ‘so-called’ which the State Prosecutor uses to refer to contemporary art. I would like to draw attention to the fact that during the trial of Brodsky exactly the same phrase was used. His poems were referred to as ‘so-called poetry’, and the witnesses hadn’t even read them […] And if that’s how it is, then for me at least this trial is just a ‘so-called’ trial. I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of you and I am not afraid of the thinly veneered deceit of your verdict at this ‘so-called’ trial. My truth lives with me. I believe that honesty, free-speaking and the thirst for truth will make us all a little freer. We will see this come to pass.’

As Katya concluded: ‘On the one hand we are waiting for the verdict of guilty to be passed. On the other, we have won.’

As I write this, the verdict is being read out.  I am looking at Twitter and The Guardian’s live coverage, refreshing the screen over and over.  I wonder how many others are doing this around the world, reading the judge’s cold words: ‘…motivated by hatred and religious enmity…’  There: judgement has been passed.  Two years each.  A sick feeling.  It is for all of us to make sure that they have still won.

Some verses of Marina Tsvetayeva’s then – again Elaine Feinstein’s translation, and a statement of defiance against the abuse of power and wealth:


And so, making clear in advance

I know there are miles             between us;

and I reckon myself with the tramps, which

is a place of honour in this world:


Under the wheels of luxury, at

table with cripples and hunchbacks…

from the top of the bell-tower roof,

I proclaim it: I love the rich.


For their rotten, unsteady root

for the damage done in their cradle

for the absent-minded way their hands

go in and out of their pockets;


for the way their softest word is

obeyed like a shouted order; because

they will not be let into heaven; and

because they don’t look in your eyes:


and because they send secrets            by courier!

and their passions        by errand boy.

in the nights that are thrust upon them they

kiss and drink under compulsion.


and because in all their accountings

in boredom, in gilding, in wadding,

they can’t buy me,      I’m too brazen:

I confirm it, I love the rich!

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This weekend I’ll be at the Wilderness Festival, leading a poetry workshop for my friends at the wonderful Idler Academy, who are also offering lectures on camping, gypsy music and foraging (I’m on at Sunday at 3pm if you’re around).  Then next week I’ll mainly be packing boxes and being made to hold by utility companies, as we’ve (finally) exchanged contracts for our move from Dalston to Peckham – I may be quiet the rest of the month whilst I scrub things and attempt to get my broadband sorted.

I’m sad to move away from East London – I’ve lived here since I moved into a shared house off Brick Lane 12 years ago, and have been in my Dalston flat for 6 years.  When we first looked round it, it was less than alluring – carpet had been laid upon carpet; the dark lounge was lined with wardrobes and the Romanian owner was boiling a cabbage.  There were crack-whores on the stairs every night and Kingsland Road seemed to regularly shut down for stabbings (see my poem The Skulls of Dalston).

But we slowly did the flat up: sanding the floorboards, painting my study Bombay Yellow and opening up the fireplace so we could have a real fire in winter.  We got to know the people in our block, which seemed to sum up Dalston’s diversity: Columbian, American, Polish, German.

And I fell in love with the area – the Turkish supermarkets full of halloumi, lamb chops and bunches of mint and coriander; sneaking to the art-deco Rio cinema on wet afternoons; the bright hand-painted signs on Ridley Road market; the walk to London Fields Lido. Lots of our friends moved locally too -handy for impromptu kebabs or parties or BBQs.

Lately it’s gentrified a lot (there’s a hairdressers at the end of my road called ‘Blue Tit’).  For a while we’ve wanted more space and I’m desperate for a garden, so we’re selling up to move to the (cheaper) South.  The prospect of moving to a new area is exciting – I like change – although I know ridiculously little about Peckham.  My sum of knowledge comes down to: Only Fools and Horses; Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye and the fact I once went to a Campari bar called Frank’s Café on top of a multistory car-park there and drank a negroni.

As readers of this blog will know, I’m very keen on Campari-based cocktails, so this is definitely encouraging, but if you have any more Peckham tips, I’d appreciate them…

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My Olympic Week

My Olympics didn’t start well.  I watched the torch pass my sister’s house in Lancaster last month, and it seemed a dispiriting omen: the torchbearer shriveled in the violent rainstorm, flanked by trucks celebrating banks and soft-drinks.  So many aspects of it have also been disturbing, from reports of it being a temporary tax-haven for some of the world’s biggest corporations to the missiles on residential flats that WN Herbert and I wrote about in our recent radio-play Surface to Air.  Whilst we were writing it, the BBC got nervous about the fact we were using words like ‘Olympics’ and ‘Games’ and ‘Gold’ – I find the fact the Olympic Organisation have tried to prevent people using these words utterly abhorrent.  They’re not trademarks, they’re words, and no one – absolutely no one – should ever be allowed to own individual words if we want free speech.

Still, the Olympics is too vast, bizarre and complex to write off entirely, and now it’s here there is clearly much to rejoice in too.  East London has a real buzz about it, and working from home I’m quickly sucked in: it’s fun to switch on at lunch and find yourself rooting for a random Italian fencer (love the futuristic flashing helmets) and I’m easily moved to tears by the sheer relief of someone achieving their dream.  On Friday we watched the opening ceremony at our friends’ flat in the Barbican: they projected it on the wall and provided tapasy nibbles, and we could see the fireworks and Red Arrows from their balcony.  It was great to see us celebrating the suffragettes and a lesbian kiss and Alex Turner’s lovely greaser quiff.  On Saturday I enjoyed the party atmosphere under the railway arch at the London Fields’ Brewery, and reading this beautiful Pindaric ode to an Olympic chariot-race winner – translated by Cameron Hawke Smith and originally from Modern Poetry in Translation – in the weekend papers: it speaks of the ‘sweet urge’ to shelter a racetrack in the ‘primal greenness’ of a forest and ends: ‘now athletes / hot from the chase / and crowned / by the Arbiter of Games / carry that forest on their victors’ heads.’

Then yesterday I went with my husband Richard to see the Basketball.  Richard’s an architect (he has a practice called Fleet), and so we got there early to explore the Olympic Park, which in many ways sums up these games – it’s a mixture of the beautiful (wildflowers by the river Lea) with the horrific (a building called the Coca-Cola Beatbox which looks like it was designed by a ten-year old boy); the elegant (the velodrome by Hopkins Architects) with the blandly corporate (the disappointingly small ‘biggest McDonalds in the world’).  The beer was predictably awful (tiny Heineken bottles for £4.30 that barely wet your lips), but we were allowed to bring in a picnic.

The basketball arena itself looks like a giant, rectangular cloud, and the action, once it started, was brilliant.  Rich is a fan, but I’ve never watched basketball before.  There were time-outs!  And cheerleaders!  I took part in my first Mexican Wave!  And it was amazing to watch Team USA, all lanky swagger, as they slam-dunked their way to victory.  They definitely deserve an ode.

A few other, non-Olympian links while I remember – my essay about translating Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf is now online, as is an interview with me for Porte Magazine.  Also, if you’ve not already read it, I’d highly recommend this interview from The Observer with Pussy Riot – some of the bravest, coolest women in the world, and another reminder of the importance of defending free speech.

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