From Persia to Tyneside and the door of darkness

IAN JACK'S NOTEBOOK

ONE OF the most popular poems in the English language isn't in origin or essence English at all. It is so popular, and lines from its 125 quatrains so well known, that almost two-thirds of its total length gets into the Oxford Book of Quotations. No other author (not Shakespeare) or book (not the Bible) can supply such a high ratio of words that have stuck in the popular memory. Last week I heard some of them spoken, not for the first time, at a funeral service:

Alas, that spring should vanish with the rose!

That youth's sweet scented manuscript should close!

The nightingale that in the branches sang,

Ah, whence, and wither flown again, who knows!

Our old friend, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was doing its stuff once again. It has been loved for generations, particularly by men, and perhaps by a particular kind of man - the kind whom, if you were to judge them superficially, didn't look as though they usually had truck with poetry in its swooning sense. Many were working class. Today they would be called auto-didacts. My father, who fell into those pinching categories, could quote screeds of the Rubaiyat, and so could the man whose funeral I went to in Tynemouth last week. If my domestic arrangements were different, he would have been my father-in-law. As it was, he asked me to call him Joe.

The Rubaiyat's appeal to men such as my father and Joe, and millions like them is, I suppose, to do with the decline of religious belief and in particular the death of the idea of after-lives in heaven or hell. Theirs was a generation which still asked the large questions - why are we here and where do we go? - and there was the Rubaiyat replying in its rhyming, bitter-sweet certainties that we shall never know and shouldn't trust those who think that they do. Carpe diem.

Its first English translation appeared, perhaps significantly, in 1859, the year of Darwin's The Origin of Species. Like my dad, like Joe, like many people, I knew the translator was Edward FitzGerald and that the original was in Persian, probably written in the 11th century by an astronomer and mathematician, Khayyam. What I didn't know, until I bought a Penguin edition after Joe's funeral, was much about FitzGerald. What the excellent introduction by Dick Davis told me was, in the light of the poem's traditional popularity, surprising.

FitzGerald was rich, reclusive - and a homosexual. He fell deeply in love with several men - including a Lowestoft fisherman, and, among his own class, a young Persian scholar called Edward Cowell. Mostly he got friendship rather than sex in return. It was Cowell who copied the Rubaiyat from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library and gave it to FitzGerald. Then, as FitzGerald began his translation, Cowell and his wife sailed to a new life in Calcutta. FitzGerald badly missed him. According to Davis's introduction, the pathos and longing of his translation "is not merely the pathos of the passing of youth and beauty but - for FitzGerald - of its forbidden quality too". And so:

Ah Love! Could thou and I with fate conspire

To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits - and then

Re-mould it nearer to the heart's desire.

This verse, this plea for gay liberation, was read aloud in the crematorium chapel at Tynemouth last week, but of course we didn't hear it as such. My dad, a mechanic, and Joe, a carpenter, were both, I think, tolerant men; the only generalised sexual, racial or national antipathy I ever heard Joe express was a mild distrust of the Germans, but given that he spent the whole of the Second World War at sea - often in convoys, once torpedoed - this was understandable. I don't think, however, that gay liberation came high on their agendas.

But who knows? Last week the sentiments of an 11th-century Persian poet, freely translated by a Victorian homosexual pining for his love, were spoken next to the coffin of a man born in the cramped streets of Hebburn- on-Tyne in 1920. Life, as Omar would say, though more memorably, is strange and glorious.

THE OLDEST writer still writing is not Nirad Chaudhuri, aged nearly 98, as I reported last week. According to the journalist and biographer, Nigel Jones, that distinction may belong to the German essayist and novelist Ernst Junger, who is "still alive and kicking and scribbling" aged 100. But perhaps Chaudhuri remains the oldest writer still writing in English.

TERENCE CONRAN'S new Soho restaurant, Mezzo, is said to be the largest in Europe. Size is certainly its only remarkable feature. Otherwise it is entirely predictable - predictably noisy, with a predictably visible kitchen and a staircase that curves in a predictable Art Deco way - apart from a notice on the menu which warns you against eating oysters after you have drunk spirits, or while you are still drinking them. It implied that the result could be messy. I've never come across this idea before, but I thought my ignorance might come from lack of breeding and that the menu demonstrated a new and refreshing egalitarianism; the information that whisky plus oysters equals vomiting deserving to be shared among the newly rich, together with the correct way to pass the port or pronounce the names of certain Oxbridge colleges.

But does the warning have any scientific basis? John Noble, a friend of mine who lives in Argyllshire, grows and sells oysters. He has also drunk a fair amount of whisky, often followed by oysters. He had, he said, heard rumours of the theory before but had never personally suffered. All he could say from 15 years of restaurant-keeping was that it was obviously dangerous to get smashed and then eat almost anything. His few customer complaints had come, he had noticed, from "media folk who arrived in already high spirits".

If Indian restaurants followed the Conran brief they could simply do away with their menus after 11pm and replace them with some ominous piece of paper worded like a Benson & Hedges advertisement. As Billy Connolly's drunk used to say as he inspected the pavement: "It couldn't have been the 16 pints, it must've been the diced carrots."

I AM writing this in Tynemouth's Grand Hotel, a fine place perched above the North Sea which began life in 1872 as the Duchess of Northumberland's summer residence. Through the double-glazing of my room I can see the breakers come crashing in from Norway. The wind sighs and bangs at the windows. It is cold, though no colder than it sometimes is in summer. The Duchess must have been a hardier person than her descendant, the late Duke, whose chief and sad claim to fame until he died last week, aged 42, was as Naomi Campbell's mother's walker.

Singing beside him in the Wilderness. RIP.

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