Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
in the Flak Tower Collected Verse 2008- 2011
Picador Poetry / Hardback / £14.99
In the late 1960s
everyone from Monty Python down was stereotyping the Australians as
rough-hewn types in khaki shorts and bush hats. Meanwhile, however, a
sleeper cell of their cultural elite was already established in the
UK preparing to re-colonise us. Among them Germaine Greer,
Barry Humphries and Clive James each, in their own way a shimmering
polymath settled in. Fifty years on, they're all still here, all still
A few of us happened
upon Clive James as a song lyricist, before we ever noticed him as a
TV presenter, autobiographer and genial wit. In my youthful 1970s,
for instance, a friend brought round to the house Driving Through
Mythical America, James' second
collaboration with the musician Pete Atkin. If it didn't rock quite
as hard as certain other albums of that 'heavy' era, James's lyrics
seemed impressively crafted.
James, therefore, has been smithing words for a very long time. The
poetry contained within the pages of Nefertiti in the Flak
Tower was never going to be
anything less than technically top notch. Whether this svelte tome
will be to everyone's taste is quite another matter. Modern poetry
falls roughly into two camps. There is that which is genuinely
popular and may be performed to packed rooms. And then there is that
which is reviewed enthusiastically by dull, worthy organs, read by
few and understood by even fewer.
members of the British public, who've encountered the latter type,
upon hearing the word 'poetry' will stampede like wildebeeste in
their best efforts to escape it. Conversely, mention to a poetry
snob the name Pam Ayres, by far our most popular living poet, and it
will be as if they had not even heard you speak. The English, we
plain English, however, generally prefer our poets long dead. They
seem less embarrassing that way.
Clive James' collection, reflecting its title, Nefertiti
in the Flak Tower. is like
observing someone with a beautifully-toned body clomping around in
brogues and an ill-cut tweed suit. Folded into this work, like cream
into a sauce, are classical allusions a go-go along with
references to other luminaries famous artists and brilliant dead
writers. Poetry, you must understand, is the one art form even more
struttingly self-referential and conceited than rock'n'roll. There's
an entire historical and cultural cornucopia packed in here much
of it over this poetry fan's head, in fact.
shame of it all is that Clive James can rhyme, scan and pun like few
others. Obviously adept in many literary disciplines, in this
particular one, for some reason, he insists on playing to a fusty
old gallery of poetry establishment mastodons such as Geoffrey Hill
and Peter Porter both of whom are name-checked. Academia,
having thoughtlessly hoisted poetry out of reach of most of us long
decades ago, would really rather that we were all reading such
'giants.' It is the unreadable in pursuit of the unteachable and
the reason why so many of us still retreat to McGough, Kipling,
Betjeman and other, more memorable light versifiers.
of Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs
may not necessarily enjoy this collection. For some, however, it may
reward persistence. Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,
with 40-odd poems and 80-odd pages, is crammed with stuff. Clever
stuff. Too clever by half, in fact. And too expensive at £14.99 .
You'd probably need your Masters in Eng Lit, Classics, History and
Film Studies to really get the full benefit of it. For bluestocking
groupies, though, it's all here if you want it.
young eye doctor, having examined my right eye, tells me that he is
just going to ask for a second opinion. The senior surgeon arrives.
"Put your chin here." he says, gesturing at the apparatus
in front of me. He sits down opposite me in order to examine the eye.
"Look at my ear please." I do as I'm told. The commands
follow in quick succession:"Look down. Now look left. Left and
up. Up. Right. Right and down. Okay. Sit back now."
matter-of-factly he tells me. "The retina is detched. We'll
operate tomorrow. "
in shock. I'm still dealing with the aftermath of the retina in my
left eye, which detached two and a half years ago, necessitating
three subsequent procedures, and much post-operative care. Now my
right eye, the 'good' one, has detached too. "Will the operation
be in London again? " I ask him with sinking heart. He shakes
his head. "No. Here." he replies."No general
anaesthetic?" I ask. "No. A local one." he says.
then. What time?" I ask. He tells me to be at the operating
heatre at 8.00am. My op is the first up. "We have to save your
sight." are his last words. I've been down this road before and
know something of what may be involved.
stand outside the hospital in the rain. I hardly slept the night
before. This is the point at which, if I'd still smoked, I might have
lit up. Instead I phone home. You could say that to have one retina
detach itself is unfortunate, two seems like sheer carelessness. It's
bad luck at any rate. My predicament although unusual, is not
completely unheard-of I know three men of similar age to myself to
whom double detachment has happened. Only a few decades ago many of
the procedures for dealing with the condition didn't exist. Fifty
years ago, the success rate for retinal re-attachment was less than
40 percent. Some people simply lost their sight.
at this juncture I feel apprehensive, I also feel somewhat relieved.
They've caught this one earlier than the last one. And I'm in good
hands. I feel lucky. I have just attended a first rate eye clinic and
been seen by a well-respected surgeon. From time of diagnosis to time
of surgery, is twenty hours. Pretty impressive. Let no one say that
I'm having less than first class service. Actually, that's the thing
about the NHS. People may moan about queues, waiting lists and
what-have-you. But when you are really, really in trouble, then
nearly always their net will catch you before you fall. It remains a
kind of miracle. The fact that the NHS is never far from the top of
the political agenda, no matter who happens to be in government,
means that the fact is acknowledged. This does not mean, however, as
I am later reminded by a health professional, that the cracks in its
structure are not appearing.
night before my operation, I remember reading that the great baroque
composers, Bach and Handel both suffered unsuccessful eye-surgery
when they were about my age. Bach died of a stroke shortly aftewards.
Handel survived a few years longer. Medical science has come a long
way in the past three centuries. Eye surgery, which I've now
experienced on four occasions, is by no means a picnic. But nor is
it quite as fearsome or as painful as you might think. It's the
aftercare which is the difficult bit. Last week, for instance,
having been discharged two hours after surgery, I was instructed to
spend the rest of that day and night sitting, head on pillow looking
directly down, or else lying on my stomach face-down with my head
resting on my arms. This procedure is referred to as 'posturing'. For
six days folloing this first positioning, I was instructed instead to
lie down, right cheek on my pillow, day and night in order to help
keep the re-attached retina in place. There were breaks For 15
minutes of each hour, I was permitted to walk gently around, and fit
in any necessary light tasks which I could do within the time allowed
: shaving, making a cup of tea etc. No cycling and no heavy lifting
either. In addition, for a few weeks following surgery, there's a
daunting regime of eyedrops to be administered up to four times
daily. There are antibiotic eyedrops, drops to help form good scar
tissue, drops to keep the pupil dilated in order to facilitate
healing and finally, drops to keep the ocular pressure at an
acceptable level. These drops often have long names, which you may
dilgently attempt to learn so that you can remind other medics which
ones you're taking. Later you'll find that they call these same drops
by a completely different name.
learned to say, "Dexamethasone" for instance. Quite
impressive so I thought. The surgeon, however, always calls it
"Maxidex."a name which appears nowhere on the box which
contains it. Such mysteries apart, however, the follow-up regime is
as important as the operation which precedes it, as the nurses remind
you. The nurses in NHS Opthalmology departments, incidentally, are
especially kindly and helpful. They know they are dealing with
nervous, sometimes fearful people, many of whom may be of an age when
eye ailments are more common. In this country we are very lucky that
such departments exist. They deserve to be cherished amd protected.
Joy of Essex (408)
Teenagers who adopt the goth style are more susceptible
than others to depression and self-harm, claims a study. This gem
came to me via our national broadcaster's news bulletin this morning.
There are times when I welcome an interruption of music by the news.
Especially when it's read by Moira Stewart who doesn't yet call it
the Nyeez? Ms Stewart is the sole remaining grown-up on Mr
Shouty's, breakfast radio show, catering for our nation's nine
million 'kidults'. The UK's popular breakfast show is delivered by a
team of bellowing metropolitans in their 40s, who laugh on cue and
honk horns, whilst pretending that we, their listeners are all
together at some wacky celebrity party. How crazy is thaaat?
Well, you don't have to be mad to work here. No, merely
endowed with enough basic sophistry to talk down to millions of your
fellow adults, as if they were not-particularly-bright 12 year-olds.
Good enough? Well, I don't think it is but then I'm only an old East
Anglian swede-cruncher so what would I know?
Wait a minute, though. Read me back that bit about goths
being depressed, again.
Who says so? Researchers at the University of Bristol,
that's who. Golly. They've been quick off the mark. Goths as a
subculture have existed since the early 1980s. They wear black
clothes with Lily Munster make up, they loll wistfully around in old
cemeteries, read graphic novels and listen to doomy music. It's only
taken thirty-odd years for the University of Bristol to deduce that
gothy teenagers may be more prone to depression than other types.
Well done, team! Break out the Havanas. Good job they weren't
assigned to cracking the Enigma Code, isn't it? After 70 years,
they'd probably only just have figured out that the enemy were
I was slightly too old to be a goth, although when I
first saw them, I thought that it was an interesting look, beautiful
even, if carried off well. Just for the record, many teenagers seem
prone to depression. I, for instance, spent much of my sixteenth
year being...'hung up' I believe we called it back then. I sank
further and further, until I was dragged to a doctor and given some
primeval anti-depressants. I was then given an accompanying card
advising me never to eat broad beans, tinned fish, crab, cheese, or
Marmite with this medication. This was because I risked cerebral
haemorrhage if I did so. Smart thing to give a distracted 16 year
old, hey? Within a few short months, I gave up the medication,
stopped seeing doctors and climbed out of the pit by myself. In
retrospect I now consider that I was merely being a typical moody
teenager who liked rock music, had no girlfriend and affected the
dress styles of his pop idols.
It doesn't help your case when you dress differently.
Other teenagers and sometimes older people, will make it their
business to insult you or sometimes, beat you. This, they'll tell
you, is to 'teach you a lesson'. I always remember the phrase
whenever I learn that some goth and his girlfriend have been left
with serious head injuries in a public park. That's what you get.
is another particular favourite of mine.
Teenagers who dress differently may do so because
they're idealistic and creative. They may also have a desire to
change the world around them, without yet any clear idea of where to
begin. Many, after surviving the tumult of adolescence, may find
their way to jobs in arts or entertainment, where they'll meet people
similar to themselves. A few will take up teaching, or find jobs
helping others worse off than themselves. A small proportion,
however, having found the path too rocky may slip slowly into mental
illness or worse, simply give up living.
Anyone persisting with a less-conventional approach to
life, chooses a difficult road. Survive that trip long enough,
however, and, round about your middle-age they might stop calling you
mad, dubbing you 'an eccentric' instead. The English are supposed
to be a nation proud of their eccentrics, although I've often had
cause to doubt it.
Were I to wander into a supermarket in a Teddy-boy drape
and colourful shirt for example (it's not been unknown) the looks
I'll receive from men of my own age can be interesting. A few will
glower tetchily, at me, almost as if I'm being a traitor to my sex
by not looking mundane enough.
By comparison, whilst at Folk East, in Suffolk last
week, I noticed a bunch of burly fellows in fearsomely unconventional
garb: blackened faces, top hats with peacock plumes, black breeches,
yellow hose and heavy boots. These were the Witchmen, I learnt:
unreconstructed pagan morris dancers, as different to ordinary morris
men, as Hells Angels to small town bikers. The Witchmen are
middle-aged, I'd guess, and when not dressed as such, probably have
perfectly good weekday jobs. They hang around in a big group too and
importantly, they're in the right place at the right time.
For those pale goths sitting in parks, or outside
Colchester's Firstsite building, it's different. They're only
learners, after all. They won't be as well-armoured as the Witchmen
against the dull brickbats of mainstream culture. So they've found
that goths may become depressed? Really? I reckon I probably would
too. Well, how many goths does it take to change a lighbulb? None.
They'd all rather sit in the dark. That's what you get.