Friday, February 14, 2020

Two by Edwin Morgan & The Edwin Morgan Poetry Award

I remember some Scottish Valentine's Day short film from some years ago, where they went around asking people on the streets to recite their favourite love poem from memory, and the one a lot of people knew well was Edwin Morgan's 'Strawberries'.

It's a lovely poem, and in general I'm an Edwin Morgan stan, as readers of this blog know. 

So here are a couple of other love poems from him.

Oh, and the biennial Edwin Morgan Poetry Award is accepting entries, if you're a poet under 30 living in Scotland [and reading this blog, which, taken together, seems a trifecta of unlikeliness; but still]. I'm blogging about it because I've discovered some great poetry via the Award.

Details here. Deadline 2nd March.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

John le Carré's Olof Palme Prize speech

John le Carré doesn't do awards. Some years ago, he asked to be removed from the shortlist of the Man Booker International Prize saying he 'doesn't compete for literary awards. 

That may have something to do with the literary establishment not commonly considering spy thrillers as having "literary" merit, with le Carré being allowed to be the exception. Not unnaturally, le Carré took, ahem, exception to that unspoken judgement, and it took - it takes - courage to refuse any kind of prize, no matter how much confidence you have in your own writing, and how many books you've written.

Late last year, though, it was announced that John le Carré had been awarded the Olof Palme Prize, which is not a literary prize. It's sometimes awarded to writers, sure - Vaclav Havel won it soon after it was instituted; it's often won by UN folks, a lot by people working in the field of human rights; once, it has made an error of judgement by giving the award to Aung San Suu Kyi, but then lots of people made that same mistake. 

Olof Palme, whom I knew had been assassinated, but in that vague way that one knew of contemporary events while at school, was a name I mostly knew as a road in Delhi and what's more, not one that I ever had reason to be on often. I have visited his grave at Highgate, but the details of his life as social democrat and all-round leftie continue to elude me.

Prizes require the awardee to give speeches. It was a long moment of suspense in the year Dylan won his unlikely Nobel, whether he would actually deliver an address and collect his award, which is contingent upon the winner actually making a speech. No quick "When I was young, my father said, [silence] Actually, he said a lot of things. Thanks for this!" and a wave of a statuette is acceptable. Some measure of gravitas is expected and I don't know if any awardee has ever failed to live up to those expectations, though Dylan came close.

So le Carré had to give a speech at the end of January. I don't think I've ever heard his speak, much less deliver a speech. I don't know if the Olof Palme Prize speech is recorded; I must look for it.

But here's a transcript of John le Carré's speech. It's a moving one, thinking about Palme's life in parallel with his life as a minor spy and a major writer of spy stories.

Reading and thinking about Palme makes you wonder who you are. And who you might have been, but weren’t. And where your moral courage went when it was needed. You ask yourself what power drove him – golden boy, aristocratic family, brilliant scion of the best schools and the best cavalry regiment – to embrace from the outset of his career the cause of the exploited, the deprived, the undervalued and the unheard?
Was there, somewhere in his early life, as there is in the lives of other men and women of his calibre, some defining moment of inner anger and silent purpose? As a child he was sickly, and partly educated at home. He has the feel of a loner. Did his school peers get under his skin: their sense of entitlement, their contempt for the lower orders, their noise, their vulgarity and artlessness? Mine did. And no one is easier to hate than a contemptible version of oneself.
Graham Greene remarked that a novelist needed a chip of ice in his heart. Was there a chip of ice in Palme’s heart? He may not have been a novelist, but there was art in him, and a bit of the actor. He knew that you can’t make great causes stick without political power. And for political power, you definitely need a chip or two of ice.
The United States did not take lightly in those days, any more than it does now, being held to account by a nation it dismisses as tin-pot. And Sweden was a particularly irritating tin-pot nation, because it was European, articulate, cultured, rich, and white. But Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice, the one that refuses to be categorised, the one that shouldn’t be in the room at all. It brought out the best in him.
And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.
There's a lot of good stuff in the speech, but as with everything else I read these days, I wonder how it speaks to the world we live in right now. 
This lit season in India, the Jaipu Literature Festival, as usual, draws the crowds and the talk. For several years, it's title sponsor has been Zee, which has always been dodgy, but since Modi came to power, has been complicit in spreading hatred and false news. Until nearly the start of the festival, the organisers failed to divulge that Zee was indeed their title sponsor. I wonder if the writers they'd invited knew. 
As far as I can tell, nobody who was invited and accepted, withdrew once they knew Zee was still the title sponsor. If they did, they haven't made their withdrawal public and said why. 
Who, in this country, at this time, is willing to be the irritant in the room? I'm not sure there is one (though Parvati Sharma wrote an honest piece about it recently). I know writers who have declined an invitation when it was made, but nobody has thought to ask them about it, and what views they have are aired on twitter (where they're worth reading. See: an exchange between Priyamvada Gopal and Sharanya Manivannan).
Back to le Carré. He's been producing, along with his sons, a lot of TV adaptations of his work and most of those are fantastic (barring only The Little Drummer Girl, which is a book I just cannot read, mostly for it's politics re Palestine). But something about this speech, so angry about the UK leaving the EU, saving the harshest words for Corbyn's Labour, seems also so final.
I hope I'm wrong, of course. He said, after Agent Running in the Field, that it was probably his last. If le Carré is not writing and being interviewed in advance of a new book being released, it seems unlikely that we'll hear from him again. That kind of final.
But if it is the last thing we hear from him, it's a good speech to end on.