Archive for May, 2017


Posted: May 28, 2017 in Chat
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In the raised brimming glass of the moon,
in the empty beaker of the day

in the sad, bedraggled evening
hot and bothered at the end of play

two bats met above the town’s rooftops
colliding on the air’s highway:

a long-eared bat in a cassock of black
and a short-eared bat with its collar turned back

collided above the rooftops
of the chic new shops in the centre of town.

And I ask you members of the jury, now,
which one of them had right of way?


 Beyond the busy gabbling of the air waves,
the shot-off arse of time’s clearway

 in the last relinquished evening
of the not-very-bothered last day

 two bats met above the conflagration
jostling in heaven’s doorway:

 a free-tailed bat turbaned with black
and a pipistrelle with cassock on its back

 elbowed and jostled above the conflagration
in a time out of time on the edge of time.

 And I ask the jury: In this instance,
to which, if any, would you give admittance?

Not to spill unnecessary words all over grief and hurt.

Warning: Contains Spoilers.


This was one of Graham Greene’s first novels to win great acclaim.
Published in 1932, it is still a gripping read. His list of characters is wide, varied, and their depictions, like the overall storytelling, accomplished.

It does have major problems, especially for the modern reader. Remember the date of publication.

It is a classic ‘Orient Express’ story: characters trapped on the great journey to Constantinople, as it was then: a three day journey.
The book opens after the ferry crossing, in the Ostend dock yard, as passengers shuffled through rain to the train. We met there the main characters. The ferry purser wondered after their passing whether a big story had just passed him by. This sets us up: something is afoot.

Passengers joined, and left, as the train travelled through pre-World War II Europe. Chapters take us from Ostend, to Cologne, Vienna, Subotica, then Constantinople.
Who are they? Why this journey?
Graham Greene makes several attempts at giving credible female characters. The best perhaps is Coral Musker. She is a dancer, going the whole journey to join up with the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe. She does not reach there. Her journey was long and winding. The cold, for a start. Her background, for another: remember the date. Impoverished, underfed, thin and alone. Then she collapsed on the train from the cold. Weak heart, the doctor said.
Here we have a story in itself: a dancer, with a weak heart.

She was offered a bunk for the night, she could not afford one herself. She accepted; the man slept outside. In the morning she woke to the implications. There would be a price to pay; this was her life, as accessory, as a woman alone. And yet, we learn, on paying the price it was her first time. The man was aghast, after all, he had expected….
He hoped he had not hurt her – because, of course, at the time he would not notice the pain, blood; he would be enjoying himself.
And here Graham Greene gives her a classic line: ‘Well, it was no picnic.’

There is an anomaly in the story-line: Richard John, the schoolmaster, had joined the train at Ostend. He attended to Miss Musker when she collapsed. And yet he then joined the train in Cologne. Had he got off for a snack, and most importantly, a newspaper? It is not clear; he had been drifting off to sleep at the end of the previous chapter as the conductor announced the station arriving: ‘Koln, Koln, Koln’.

One of Graham Greene’s greatest failings is his naivete in certain matters. One of those matters is Mabel Warren, British journalist, based in Europe. It is she who recognises the person behind Richard John.
The problem here, you see, is that Mabel Warren is gay. A later conversation with her companion journeying to meet her uncle, centres on ‘But what can she do, a woman like that?’
The male prurience.
‘Kissing.’ Answers her companion, ‘Endless kissing.’ This sense of impotence is assumed of gay love.
And yet, it is also in Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the fair youth, the sense of physical need but complete lack of means. Shakespeare, as the 1920s, was fully aware of the possibility of a complete gay relationship.
Graham Greene shows a degree of squeamishness with the physical. He counters this with a slightly over-the-top worldliness; but here, as we see, he was out of his depth.

So, what of Richard John, schoolmaster? And where exactly was he travelling?
He said Vienna, but Mabel’s news nose told her, Belgrade. And his real name was Dr Czinner. A medical doctor, hence his aid to Coral Musker, but one who had realised the people of his country needed greater help than medical. They needed political help.
The threat that was turning Europe upside down was the recently established Soviet Union. It was still  in its internationalism phase.
Richard John/Dr Czinner was returning to head an uprising. Only, it had already happened, and failed, he discovered in his newspaper. And he was trapped on this train heading into who knew what reprisals.
For Mabel here was a front page story.

And then we come to Carleton Myatt. Myatt was travelling all the way, on business. He was wealthy. Well, he would be, because Graham Greene takes every opportunity, and more, to tell us that Myatt is… A Jew.
I expected… I had to check the date of publication several times… that the atrocious Nazi race propaganda was at work here, seeping through into every aspect of professional life. But 1932, and written 1930-1?
Myatt cannot help his race’s splayed hands gesture, we read; he catches himself at it. At the end of the book he is asked to be charitable, he answers to the effect that I am a Jew, Charity is a Christian virtue.
What utter and obnoxious nonsense is this?
So why did he give his bunk, indeed his First Class ticket, to Coral Musker at the beginning? She assumed there was a price. That particular price. Because that was what was expected of a poor working woman. But he did not expect it; companionship would have sufficed. All to do with reading social expectations.
But what did Graham Greene give us with Myatt? A caricatured stereotype. He attempted to get inside the man, but could not get around this gargoyle he had made, and was busy shoring up.
More importantly, why did Myatt pay over the odds for a car journey back to Subotica, to search for her?

Because Coral, and Dr Czinner, were arrested at an out of the way station near Subotica.
Subotica was just over the border into Yugoslavia/Serbia. Next stop was Belgrade. The military were waiting for him. He saw them coming and slipped a letter to Coral. It was seen.

I suspect we are to read that Coral goes out of the frying pan into the fire, at the end. She is rescued, but by the newly deserted Mabel. Mabel wants the exclusive on the news story, naturally. But she was also quite taken with Coral.
Good luck to them, I say.

And that is an indication of how deeply the reader invests with the characters. So when we get such a crass caricature like Myatt, we either react against book and author, or we wonder about the moral responsibilities of the writer of realist fiction.
The anti-semiticism, I read elsewhere, is to reflect attitudes prevalent in Europe at the time. And yet the internal dialogues Graham Greene gives us is of one who’s very essence is based around this attitude.
Are we to read sociologically, here: is it that it is one’s environment makes one? It is difficult to determine how much of the public attitudes to his Jewishness en route is Greene, and how much observation.
Then what of Graham Greene’s Catholicism? It is shoe-horned clumsily into the story at points, that stretch credibility, like shoe leather. Does it make a fit?

That we are to read it sociologically is backed up by the character of Dr Czinner. He was the one who described Coral as having a bad heart. His reaction we then read in hindsight. She had a bad heart partly through poverty, poor and irregular meals, the circumstances of her trapped position in life. All these had turned him from a doctor to a political fighter.
It is from that initial kindness of his that she took the smuggled letter. She was subsequently held, questioned, and was to be deported. Back to the clamouring for bit parts again at stage doors. As it is….

There are humourous interludes in the book. One led to a brief legal case: was the character of cockney popular writer Q C Savory originally a poke at J B Priestley? He thought so. The character was re-written later.

Graham Greene described the book as a deliberate attempt to make money by tailoring it to popular reading, and film, taste. In succeeded on both counts.
Such a motive does indeed work in your favour sometimes.
We also read here the dangers of courting popular tastes: did Graham Greene reflect what he saw, or further promote bigotry by writing about it so pointedly, and without any form of condemnation? Once again, the question of responsibility.

The writer, publisher and all-round good man Richard Livermore has very pertinent comments to say on this issue:
There is nothing in the rule-books which says that to appreciate a good novel you have to be in agreement with the ideas expressed in that novel. In fact, you can even think the ideas are insane and yet thoroughly enjoy the novel in question. What’s important is the quality of the writing and the presentation of the characters and also the situations within it. Never forget that you are reading a work of fiction and as such it requires a suspension of disbelief. Verisimilitude, or the appearance of truth or reality requires it. Outside of the novel you can be as sceptical as you like, but if the novel holds your attention and makes you believe in it while you are reading it that is all that finally matters. That goes for whether you agree with the point of view of the author or not. Louis Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi, but Journey To The End Of The Night is nevertheless a really good novel.

For more on Richard Livermore, and I urge you to go, see:

from The Arabian Nights.

What follows is an earlier version of my Sinbad chapter in Gifts of Rings and Gold




The basic arc of the Seven Voyages is that of the story of the Porter, Sinbad, and his gaining of knowledge, wisdom, and, let’s not forget, entertainment. Financially he does very well out of it too: he is given 100 gold coins every story he attends.

– The Porter begins the series of tales, bewailing his lot as a porter of heavy goods. Stopping for a rest by a wealthy merchant’s house, he finds himself invited in, is introduced to all, and introduces himself to his host: Sinbad, a merchant and sailor.

For six subsequent days he arranges his work around further audiences at the house so he can hear the tales the host has to tell. At the end of the whole tale he is a happier and wiser man: ‘The porter remained a constant visitor at the house of his illustrious friend, and the two lived in amity and peace…’.

There are many translations of the tale; a translation is, almost by definition, a version of the original. When we get to re-tellings of extant versions you get an idea of the variations possible through the ‘Chinese whispers’ of versions, and versions of versions.

For this study I went back to the version by Sir Richard Burton, 1885. The problem with this version is that it is part of the Scheherazade story, which keeps coming in at ‘inappropriate’ moments in the storyline, in the form of breaks in the narrative, then resumptions, reputedly the following night.


– The merchant Sinbad’s story is as follows: he was the son of a wealthy merchant; upon his father’s death he inherited the fortune, and led a carefree and extravagant life. Pulled-up short by the realisation he had nearly squandered it all, he converted the last into merchandise and went out into the world to rebuild, or rescue what he could of his fortune.

There follows seven trading voyages, which turn remarkably odd.

The main thing in favour of this version I am using is that it is still possible to discern an overall pattern to the voyages, which becomes lost in later versions

– the earlier voyages are voyages of acquisition: Sinbad’s whole intent is to regain wealth through trade.

– -the latter voyages are decidedly voyages of exploration.

What is gained by exploration? Knowledge: of market-resources, trading-terrain, of conditions, regions and customs. But also an invaluable network of colleagues and contacts. What is gained is trust, honour and esteem.

Wealth is only a metaphor for knowledge: worldly wealth and spiritual wealth mirror each other in the overall tale.

In Voyage 1 he sets out to sea; the ship sets down at an island, which turns out be a long-basking whale. All escape but Sinbad. He drifts penniless to another island where men take him in; he helps them with their task of luring sea stallions to cover a land mare: the resultant horse is very highly valued. He is taken to their city and introduced to the king. He becomes a trusted courtier, and wealthy merchant; he learns all about the Brahmin castes of India. He finds a ship home, regains his initial merchandise, returns home.

In Voyage 2 he sets out once more, is abandoned on an island: the ship sails without him as he has fallen sleep beside a stream. In the distance is a huge egg, he recognizes it from tales as that of the Roc bird. It arrives at sunset. In order to escape the island he ties himself to it, is taken far away to a cliff top by the bird. He unties himself and the bird flies off. Below him are huge serpents, but also priceless jewels scattered about. The serpents hide away as the sun rises. He loads himself up with these jewels. During the day sheep carcasses are thrown down to stick the jewels to their bloody skins. He has heard of this too; ties himself to one. When the local people retrieve the carcasses he is shunned as an evil spirit, until he is able to convince them otherwise, with his jewels. He is taken to safety and exchanges some jewels for merchandise, sails home trading successfully.

Voyage 3 gets nastier: ship wreck this time involves going off course, and being invaded by apelike creatures from an island, who steal the ship. Inland of the island they discover a huge, well-equipped house where they shelter. It is the house of a giant, who eats them one by one, one per night. They resolve to escape: build a raft during the day, and that night they blind the giant. As they drift off he appears with his mother and hurls rocks at them; some drown, and some escape with him. The next island is the abode of a giant serpent, which also eats them one by one. Sinbad escapes this fate by building himself a coffin out of ship timbers. The serpent cannot break it. Next day he is rescued by a passing ship, the only survivor. In this instance it is he, a man with cunning and wit, who is picked up by a passing ship, and not an apelike creature as at the beginning of the voyage. The captain is amazed at his tale, and he is reunited with previous goods from Voyage 2.

The Fourth Voyage sees all wrecked once more, and the survivors drift to an island. Strange wild men take them to their king; he treats them extraordinarily well; Sinbad is wary, however, and soon finds that his fellow men are being fed adulterated food. They lose their wits, eventually grow corpulent on the fare, and are then eaten, by the king and company. Sinbad grows thinner and thinner. They take no interest in him, and he escapes. On the other side of this vast island he meets a gentle people, who take him in. He provides goods for them and becomes very wealthy by making saddles for their horses, for they have none. As written earlier, he marries, is honoured by their king, then undergoes the ordeal of the grave pit after his wife died. The ring here centres on the subject of the bestiality of living solely in the physical body. He must die in the body and mind in order to be reborn as someone worthy of his life: the man must ride the body, and not vice versa.

I think the question being asked here is: what survives when all else is taken away, one’s lifestyle, honour, even one’s life? It is the life of the spirit, I think.

Voyage 5 we once again encounter the Roc’s egg, and the island – but a member of the crew breaks it, and when the bird returns bombards the ship with rocks until it is smashed. The boat is wrecked. Sinbad lands on an island. There an old man begs him to take him over a stream, which he does. The old man will not let go, though and near strangles him. He has to be carried around like this for weeks, doing ‘his natural filth all down my back’. He is eventually dislodged by trickery, and killed by Sinbad. He is rescued; learns that it was the Old Man of the Sea, who few survive. He is taken to the City of the Apes where he is encouraged to join some workmen throwing stones at apes in trees; they throw back coconuts, which are collected and sold at market. He makes a good profit and heads for home, trading on the way, hiring pearl divers and amassing a good quantity.

In Voyage 6 the ship becomes lost, and eventually wrecked on an island. It was scattered with previous wrecks, and bales of merchandise and treasures.  His crew members die one by one amongst all the wealth and precious jewels scattered about; he himself builds a raft to allow the river to take him away, hopefully to safety. When he wakes he has been rescued. His rescuers marvel at his tale, take him to their king, who takes him in. He becomes a royal courtier in time. He becomes a kind of ambassador for his own monarch, Haroun al-Rashid, and is allowed home with all honours, a fortune, and his story embellished in gold.

The motif of treasures for all to take is repeated here. There is always a price, though. Jewels are, by themselves, useless, that men starve whilst surrounded by such wealth.

In Voyage 7 he sets out, the ship is wrecked by a whale. We have the whale motif again, and the friendly inhabitants. This latter contrasts with the early voyages where the inhabitants of other lands are anything but friendly. He ends up on an island where jewels glitter and liquid amber flows; the crew die of hunger one by one. He is about to give himself, but makes a raft to see where the river would take him. He is rescued in the nick of time and taken-in by an elderly merchant. He becomes rich, marries the merchant’s daughter. After the old merchant dies he discovers he came from elsewhere, that the inhabitants of this land, pleasant as they are, are all worshippers of Satan. They leave, with their fortune intact, and return home.

There is also a religious dimension: the Brahmins, and Indian castes of Tale 1 are here are paralleled with the worshippers of Satan. A bit harsh, perhaps? Both sets of people are very pleasant, and indeed honourable. They just have this unfortunate focus at the centre of their lives.

The Seven Voyages is clearly based in parts on the Odyssey; both books share certain central characters and episodes. However, the Odyssey was not well known in the Arabic world: translations were few and far between. We find in both books the Old Man of the Sea, who plays such a role in Voyage Five. He is surely another take on the Phorcys character in the Odyssey. We also find a Circe story: in Voyage Four, the ship’s crew is entertained by the King who feels them adulterated food until they lose their wits, become bloated and witless creatures. The Cyclops episode is echoed in the Third Voyage down to the giant, and their blinding of him, the giant throwing rocks at their raft as the float away.

Odysseus’ communing with the dead may parallel the death-event in Voyage Four.

A shame about the Sirens; that could have been interesting. In the Seven Voyages woman do not play any role whatsoever: Sinbad marries twice; his first marriage turns to disaster as his wife died; the second marriage, to the old merchant’s daughter in Voyage Seven, marked their joint desire to escape the company of unbelievers, and a final return home.


There is a central voyage where all changes – because, yes, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad are structured in a ring.

Each tale has a repeating pattern of shipwreck, loss, or abandonment; and resolution. This last can come from the restitution of goods/fortune from a previous voyage; or earned honours from the present voyage.

Each tale ends as it begins with the merchant safely back home and turning once more to an indulgent lifestyle. Each tale employs a change of circumstances in the middle section – each tale is a complete ring in itself.

They all add up to the overall ring of the Seven Voyages.

The changeover, in the fourth tale, is very well marked, and prepared for: it is a death experience. Where before, surviving shipwrecks and other catastrophes had been the case, in the fourth tale he is by custom of the land lowered into the grave pit with his dead wife, and a small supply of food, as well as the grave goods.

That he survives is due to his total abasement: he must kill all subsequent burial spouses, and steal their food supplies. He escapes his death-experience by following a carrion-eating animal’s tunnel to a bleak shoreline. He has become that animal almost, crawling on all-fours.

He brings out bales of grave goods as loot. When he is rescued by a passing ship he offers the captain a priceless pearl, but the captain refuses: it is a matter of honour that he was rescued, and not acquisition: honour is more important than wealth.

The changeover is marked, in the Tale 3, by escape from a huge serpent, by way of hiding inside a coffin he constructed from ship’s planks. We get a foreshadowing here of the death-experience to come.


And this brings in another aspect of the Seven Voyages, what the hard-working Porter learns, and what Sinbad the spend-thrift earns: I think maybe what we have is a vestige of a Sufi teaching tale. Either that or it is an approximation of one. The tale may have accrued this ‘atmosphere’ as Orientalism became the fashion.

I’m already on strange ground with this – so might as well go ahead. Think of the Porter as the mind, going through its everyday, then the sailor Sinbad is the heart that sees more, and can learn. The two are in accord at the end.

Think of Sinbad as the Sheik of the Sufi ‘circle’, the leader, whom the novice must submit in spirit to, must ‘become’ to liberate himself from the world, and become wholly ‘spirit’ incarnate. And then see the Voyages as the valleys of the seven ‘nafs’. The trials and tests one must undergo in order to learn the value and meaning of the true way of being, and to rid oneself of falsehood. There are reputedly three stages of nafs: the Inciting nafs; the Self-accusatory nafs; the nafs of Peace.

I do not wish to pursue this further; I am not sufficiently versed in the Quran, or Sufi lore.

So why arrange them as rings? Is this a covert indication of the Sufi circle? Memory plays a big part in Sufism, too: to remember is to remember one’s true nature under the layers of distractions and false fronts that are the world. So, the ring is a device for remembering, but maybe as a Sufi story it is also a device for remembering that the act of remembering is at the heart of one’s true self.

As seen previously the ring device is a mnemonic device: once one can remember the way to the heart, the central change, then one will know the way on from there, by repeating various motifs, events. It is essentially a device of memory. ‘The way of the heart’ is an epithet that Western writers give to Sufism. If my surmises are correct here then we do see a range of metaphors based on the image of a ring. Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles configured another Sufi tale, the Mudhumalati, (by Manjhan, AD1545) as a complex star shape, of four triangles where chapter reflected chapter in the circle of the construction.

We can posit a construction where the whole of the Voyages are connected on various details e.g. 1 and 2 connect on abandonment; 2 and 3 are connected by serpents; 3 and 4 are connected by cannibalism etc to 7 and 1 connected on royal honour and patronage. There are many possible mappings to the tale but I cannot see a figurative arrangement. Voyages 1, 4 and 6 map out honourable positions Sinbad earns at various courts; Voyages 4, 6 and 7, map out the uselessness of jewels and wealth; and 2, 4 and 7 on the theme of peripheral value: jewels, grave goods and sandalwood.  3 and 5 connect on the theme of apes; 1 and 7 on the whale; 2 and 5 on the Roc bird. There does not seem to be an arrangement I am familiar with in this; the patterns of Muslim architecture are all based on harmony and balance. The ring is the only harmonic structure I can see here.


It was late Thursday, an April night,
you were summoning the cat;
next day was work again; then all was quiet.
Look up, you said, alarming me, brought me
down to the garden, in a clatter.

The sky, you said, just look. It took time
to work its charm. How, I griped,
trying to understand, could I lie immobile
when the sky was alive and brimming with light?
And the silence of it unnerving.

A predominant red with purple undertones;
shafts of white, bars of light
processing through, like high tones
on satin curtains. The light blues and greens tight
in the weave, soaked up by streetlights.

A loom of light, a night shift without rest breaks,
warping from the north strong striations
and the dipped sun wefting from the west.
The studs and button-pins of stars, constellations.
A slow ripple across the width of sky.

A silk dressing-gown draped across, and the guest
gone off to sleep with the cat at her feet.