Friday, 26 January 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Boots for the Footless by Brian Behan (Tricycle, Kilburn), Tribune, 26 January 1990

"Tricycle's play 'outrages' audience," screamed the lead headline in last Friday's Kilburn Times. The story underneath was less spectacular. "Four members of the audience of Brian Behan's new play, Boots for the Footless, have written to the leader of Brent Council, Dorman Long, and to the local MP, Ken Livingstone, to demand that the production's funding be withdrawn," it read. "Cannel Keeley, of Glastonbury Street, West Hampstead, described the performance as "two hours of psychological torture".

"Every single stereotype about stupid, drunken, violent Irishmen and sexually contradictory, irrational Irishwomen was dragged out and celebrated . . "

Ms Keeley is, of course, entitled to her opinion, but it is difficult to feel anything but pity for anyone quite so humourless. Boots for the Footless is certainly bawdy, hilariously irreverent and satirical — particularly about Irish Catholicism and republicanism — but racist it is not.

It is a two-act farce, some might say autobiographical, the first part set in a Dublin bedroom in 1950. The central character is Padser, a chronically lazy skiver who is living in bed at his brother's house, tolerated because he has £5,000 of inheritance money (under the mattress). Padser's brother, Declan, is a drunk; his nephews, Martin and Lar, are workshy political agitators (Martin republican, Lar communist); the sister-in-law, Maura, is undisputed boss of the household.

To cut a long, complex and immensely funny story short, we reach the interval with only Maize and Declan left in the house. Padser has done a runner with his money to escape the clutches of Bridie, a country girl to whom he has been forced to promise marriage; Martin has been arrested for shooting a policeman; and Lar has decided that there's more chance of making the revolution in England.

Act two takes us to the Festival of Britain building site in London the following year, where Padser has taken a job after gambling away his fortune. He gets his nephews jobs too (Martin has escaped from Mountjoy prison), and Lar soon becomes shop steward.

Lar attempts to organise the workers to prevent the King and Queen from visiting the site wthout union cards; Martin announces his plan to assassinate them.

Although the pace flags at the very end, this is a tremendously enjoyable anarchic comedy. It's also superbly written: Behan has an unerring ear for vernacular Irish speech. If this is "psychological torture"; give me some more.

Friday, 12 January 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Letters to an Editor by Mark Fisher (ed) (Carcanet, £14.95), Tribune, 12 January 1990

Carcanet, the Manchester publishing house, has marked its 20th anniversary in a characteristically unusual way, by publishing a selection of letters to Michael Schmidt, its founder and editor. Schmidt's responses to his correspondents — poets, critics, translators and novelists — are entirely absent. Nevertheless, the collection provides a compelling insight into the workings of an extraordinary publishing venture.

Carcanet began as an Oxford undergraduate magazine, moved into publishing pamphlets of poetry, and has grown to become one of Britain's most respected serious literary publishers.

Today it has a list that includes contemporary English poets, translations of European writers, neglected modernist texts and a bi-monthly magazine, PN Rewiew. C B Cox rubs shoulders with Stuart Hood; Hans Magnus Enzensburger meets, inter alia, Roger Scruton, William Carlos Williams, Czeslaw Milosz and Gabriele D'Annunzio.

It is difficult to make sense of such eclectic seriousness — the temptation is simply to celebrate — but there is method in it. The correspondents that dominate this volume are two poets, C H  Sisson and Donald Davie, both, in their own ways, late twentieth-century claimants to the mantle of Ezra Pound. It is their uncompromising elitist high modernism that has been the spark for Carcanet's book-publishing programme and magazine (the "PN" started out ' as "Poetry Nation").

Carcanet came into being at the end of the sixties, a low dishonest decade of know-nothing populism and declining standards in the eyes of Schmidt and most of his correspondents. "I can't see that it was that conspicuously awful," is about the best it gets here.

The task, or so it seemed, was to counter the intellectual hegemony of the Marxist Left, reassert the conservative modernist aesthetic of Pound, T S Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, and fight the appalling cultural collapse that lay behind such diverse phenomena as the New English Bible and rock and roll.

This is the voice of a literary intelligentsia disgusted by social democracy and the fake scientism of literary academia, which, unlike its similarly disgusted continental West European conterparts in the same period, turned right.

If Carcanet and PNR had remained true to these origins, there would be little more to say than that reaction often finds sophisticated literary practitioners. But the tensions in the high modernist project (helped by Schmidt's sentimental attachment to the idea that the serious publisher has a duty to make available the works of the unjustly ignored) have proved fertile. The Eliotesque laments in PNR on the crisis of Anglicanism (always more literary-aesthetic than theological) are now less frequent than unambiguously humanist polemics against the depravations of Thatcherism.

Why? Most obviously, seriousness about English modernism necessarily means engagement with other modernisms and the abandonment of the narrow concerns of British conservative culture. Faced with Berlin Dada, it is impossible to claim that taking modernism seriously is essentially a matter of complaining about the destruction of the C of E's poetic heritage under the pernicious influence of leftist vicars.

More important, the departure from conservative Leavisite norms took place in the context of a sea-change in literary culture in Britain. If in 1969 the enemy was the populist barbarians listening to the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, by the late seventies there was a new threat, at the heart of the academy: structuralist criticism and its progeny, denying the very possibility of the author and, thereby, all the critical values of humanist modernism.

Against this new enemy, Schmidt found, almost accidentally, some unusual allies — secular humanist leftists at odds with the old Carcanet project but far more antipathetic to the new and orthodoxy, despite their one-time endorsement of such horrors as communism and sixties populism. The list grew more diverse and PNR more interesting. By the mid-eighties, Schmidt's reconciliation with his one-time political enemies seemed complete. Recent issues of PNR have been the closest thing we have in Britain to a secular European literary review.

The question that faces Schmidt now is an old one: "What next?" It would be a pity, to say the least, if he decided, out of fear of losing control or because of worries about integration into an academic "establishment", to draw back from the broad cultural agenda that Carcanet and PNR now address, and to concentrate on "poetry and its milieu" again. But that, I'm told, is what he plans to do. Perhaps somebody should drop him a line.


Paul Anderson, review of Seven Lears by Howard Barker (Royal Court), Tribune, 12 January 1990

Howard Barker is an angry man: he believes that contemporary theatre is getting almost every­thing completely wrong.

This is not an unusual belief among playwrights. What sets Barker apart is the reasoning behind his deep antipathy to "normal theatre". Barker believes that the breakdown in moral consensus over the-past decade demands a theatre that challenges audiences to think through big moral questions – a complex, difficult, anti-realist theatre in which there is no simple "message" and no mere playing for laughs. "The Theatre of Catastrophe", he writes in Arguments for a Theatre, a collection of recently published essays, "takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather it is an irritant in consciousness like the grain of sand in the oyster's gut."

Barker's iconoclasm and the obscurity of his plays have won him plenty of enemies, but he also inspires fierce loyalty among a minority of actors, directors, theatre-goers and critics. Seven Lears, at the Royal Court in a joint production by the Leicester Haymarket, the Sheffield Crucible and The Wrestling School, the company formed by Kenny Ireland and Hugh Fraser to perform Barker's work, should do much to augment the ranks of his admirers.

It is, to say the least, an ambitious play: few modern playwrights would dare to write any sort of a prelude to Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, let alone one that revises so much received wisdom about Shakespeare's characters. Barker takes as his starting point the "significant absence" of Lear's wife in King Lear, and assumes that she has been "expunged from memory" by Lear and his daughters, hated so completely that she is never even named. More shocking still, the wife Barker creates for Lear, Clarissa, is hated for being too good.

Seven Lears traces the family's history from Lear's youth and the events that lead up to his assumption of the throne – his schooling in amoraltiy by a bishop, his carnal liaison with the innocent Clarissa's mother, Prudentia. Lear is a charming impetuous rake, unfit to govern and aware of it. On the death of his father, his first act is to make the old king's chief adviser, Horbling, his fool. His second is to make Clarissa his wife.

Lear's reign is a catalogue of public disaster and private debauchery. His army is routed on a foreign expedition; relieved by a force led by Clarissa, he is unable to thank his soldiers for their sacrifices and narrowly escapes being killed by one of them. Back home, he keeps Prudentia as a mistress while Clarissa bears Goneril and Regan. He turns his attention to building a flying machine, then retires from his family to live with Prudentia in a tower while the poor starve. In middle age, he encourages Clarissa to mate with Kent, then attempts to drown their progeny, Cordelia, in a vat of gin.

Through all this, Clarissa is a suffering saint yet, when the play comes to its climax as she is denounced by her daughters, it is difficult not to empathise with them, vile as they are, even though it is impossible to deny her virtue. This is as disturbing a predicament for an audience as any I have experienced.

How far this would be possible without a committed cast is a moot point. Barker's writing is sometimes sloppy, and his use of a "Chorus of the Gaoled" to represent the suffering poor is clumsy. But the actors in this production are superb, with Nicholas Le Prevost's Lear, Jemma Redgrave's Clarissa and Jane Bertish's  Prudentia all magnetic. Taken as a whole, Seven Lears is a theatrical tour de force, quite unlike anything else currently on the London stage.