Memories of people, times and places, responses to books, to films, to scenes of everyday life.

I would love to hear from readers—from old friends, from anyone who stumbles on these pages.


Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Memed, My Hawk


John wrote to me from Istanbul a while ago saying I should read Yashar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk. There were no copies in the public library here, nor in the university library, and so I turned to Amazon—not without the usual flutter of misgivings. An attractive offer of a clean used copy said one dollar, plus six-dollars-and-something for postage, mailed from a supplier in Ontario, which looked in total about what one might happily pay in a thrift shop for such a book.

We tend to think and write about books we have read as disembodied “texts,” assemblages of words that resolve themselves on recollection into images and arguments, characters and events and scenes, the physical form of the book itself of little consideration. Yet books are also possessions, tangible things that lie about. Inviting or awkward, as the case may be.

My one-dollar book arrived as promised. It had in fact not been mailed from anywhere in Ontario, but from something called World of Books Ltd., Mulberry House, Goring by Sea, in the UK, by Royal Mail. The copy—a Collins-Harvill reprint from 1990—was definitely used, with that soft, rubbed feeling inside and out one associates with lending libraries.


Sure enough, inside the front cover I find pasted a book plate from Lanchester Library, Coventry Polytechnic—which has been Coventry University since 1992—and over that a slender sheet with rubber-stamped dates of past borrowings, each cancelled with another rubber stamp, six of these in all. The only other marks inside the cover are call numbers. Someone catalogued it as 824 YAS, and then changed the number to 894, then revised the whole thing to 353 KEM. One of those six readers perhaps alerting the library to the mistake about the author’s surname? A little history of use, a gentle decline to deaccession, to the dollar bin, and now to me.

Memed, My Hawk is a marvellous wedding of social realism and fairy-tale wonder that is perhaps only possible in a landscape and time like the one depicted. A traditional society on the cusp of modernity. Governments and armies, regional capitals and police forces, existing, but at a distance. In this vacuum, brutal landlords exploit peasants and villagers at will. Brigandage, outlawry, a rough code of comradeship, courage and daring represent a kind of justice, a balancing of the books. This is Turkey in the early days of the Republic, after World War I. But it might be the West, the Outback, the Caucasus, the Sertão, those places of the untamed margin, places that contain both a regression of civilisation and the founding myth of a new society.

Kemal’s book made me think of the great novel of João Guimarães Rosa, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands—similarly the narrative of a brigand, in a similar landscape, but in Brazil—which I read many years ago and wove into my lectures on American History as the counter-example of a frontier myth, a work whose linguistic and spiritual and emotional registers would be unthinkable in any imaginable Western. I want to read it again, but it is out of print and there are no one-dollar copies on Amazon, not even from World of Books in Goring by Sea.


Turner, Snow Storm (1842)

Turner, Snow Storm (1842)

Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner has been universally praised. Were we missing something? Would we think better of the film in recollecting it, or seeing it again? Possibly.

The film starts out with a problem, or rather several problems, from the point of view of dramatic interest. J.M.W.Turner as a subject. Only imagine an incredulous old-time Hollywood mogul listening to the pitch: What you have here (it would have to go) is the story of a man successful from the beginning, rich, honoured by his professional peers, having no unfulfilled or ill-starred romantic passions we know of, no serious rivals, who never seems to have been blocked in a prodigious output of art works, or done anything he did not choose to do, and died in bed in domestic comfort, mourned and revered, a national treasure.

Since there is no conflict to speak of, the film doubles down on two other staples of cinematic technique. One of which is acting, or perhaps we should say Acting. Timothy Spall’s Turner puffs and grunts, squints and waddles, stabs and spits, he gropes and nuzzles and rogers, he mostly frowns but sometimes twinkles and now and again chortles. Turner’s housekeeper, played by Dorothy Atkinson, contributes a supplementary gallimaufry of moues and angular postures. This perpetual motion of deep but largely indecipherable inner commotion has the effect of substituting for plot. It also sucks up all the available oxygen, the rest of the film stranded in the parallel universe of a mediocre costume piece. It invites us to think that when Turner acts badly he is being misunderstood, as only a man of such profound absence of social skills and repellent aspect can be misunderstood. We are being offered an intuition, rather than an explanation, of Turner’s greatness as an artist. It must have to do with the temperament.

The other staple, which Mr. Turner deploys in abundance, is atmosphere. The sun is here, the sun is there. Glowing through mist, burning brazenly on a molten sea, in calm and in storm, setting clouds, smog, industrial fire and smoke, alike ablaze with inner transcendental glory. So this is how those late masterpieces—The Fighting Temeraire (1838); Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying) (1840); Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842); Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)— came to be! Turner painted what he saw! But sumptuousness in cinema is ultimately the enemy of understanding that requires stillness, comparison, thought. The film achieves the trick of diminishing the pictures it is presumably celebrating. Why visit the Tate when you can go directly to Margate?

There are hints of Art History. Mr. Turner gets off between grunts that Claude Lorrain was a genius. A twinkling squint appears to express contempt for the Pre-Raphaelites. The figure who could sort this all out for us, however, the greatest critic of the age, John Ruskin, is represented in the film as lisping, camp dilettante, a fool.