24 June 2010

Ed Glinert's A Literary Guide to London: Literary London #24

Ed Glinert's A Literary Guide to London (London: Penquin, 2000) is a font of information, and many examples I've used in the past have been gleaned from his book. That notwithstanding, I would have welcomed more mention of obscure authors in place, say, of Martin Amis. In the Notting Hill section, for instance, I'm sure many people would have warmly welcomed a few anecdotes about the eccentric poet John Gawsworth, who inherited the Kingdom of Redonda from M. P. Shiel, and used to hold forth in the Alma pub in Westbourne Grove, often conferring dukedoms and such like on beermats to anyone willing to buy him the price of a drink for the privilege. In 2000, it may not have been known, as Barry Humphries later revealed about meeting Gawsworth, that he kept Shiel's ashes in a container that he took a pinch from to add to meals on special occasions, but the bizarre activities of the King of Redonda must have been quite widely known known among writers, surely? Glinert must certainly have been unaware of the equally bizarre Lionel Britton, who makes London almost a character in his novel Hunger and Love, but just to mention Simon Blumenfeld in passing merely to note that he was obscure seems a mistake to me.

Which brings me to a second niggle: the dearth of entries in the East End section: why no more comment on Blumenfeld, who wrote two novels - Jew Boy (1932) and Phineas Kahn (1937), set in the East End? Why no mention of Willy Goldman, who wrote East End My Cradle? Why no mention of the wonderful B. S. Johnson? Why no mention of the Jewish working-class anarchist Emanuel Litvinoff, who in 1951 attended a poetry reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in which he read the following poem against T. S. Eliot?

'To T.S. Eliot

Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck
your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty
floats amid incense and speaks oracles
as though a god
utters from Russell Square and condescends,
high in the solemn cathedral of the air,
his holy octaves to a million radios.

I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

It would seem, then, yours is a voice
remote, singing another river
and the gilded wreck of princes only
for Time’s ruin. It is hard to kneel
when knees are stiff.

But London Semite Russian Pale, you will say
Heaven is not in our voices.
The accent, I confess, is merely human,
speaking of passion with a small letter
and, crying widow, mourning not the Church
but a woman staring the sexless sea
for no ship’s return,
and no fruit singing in the orchards.

Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded
and darkness choked our nostrils,
and the smoke drifting over Treblinka
reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,
I thought what an angry poem
you would have made of it, given the pity.

But your eye is a telescope
scanning the circuit of stars
for Good-Good and Evil Absolute,
and, at luncheon, turns fastidiously from fleshy
noses to contemplation of the knife
twisting among the entrails of spaghetti.

So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.'

Iain Sinclair is very justifiably mentioned several times. And, predictably, Amis is there for London Fields. Amis yes, B. S. Johnson no? That's a crime of the first water!

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