The persistence of gulls

Herring-Gull

A crisp, cold morning and, walking up through the park, I see two sets each of four magpies but mainly wonder at the unusual number of common gulls, black-headed gulls and herring gulls. I recall, though, a day last year when the Librarian and I saw almost a hundred gulls scattered across the grass on either side of the park. Towards the centre of one large group of them on the left-hand side, a gathering of sparrows; towards the rear and again to one side, two loose groups of wood pigeons. All of them feeding, grazing, pecking, circling. Wet weather, the grass recently cut and still rich green. The upshot: a bad day to be a worm. That note to be scrawled in countless earthy diaries and gardening journals against the date of 16th November: Bad Worm Day.

Yes, we may outnumber the rats by six to one in this country – but there are always the gulls. . . Just a few weeks ago, walking along the front at Lyme Regis, holding tightly shut the box containing fish and chips, I was dive-bombed by a gull, its beak thumping against the lid. At Lyme these days the fish and chips stallholders routinely warn you about the gulls as they hand over your order but I’d naively thought that holding the box closed was a reasonable response to that warning.

Years ago, in my room at the top of an eighteenth-century townhouse in Bath, I would hear the gulls circling and crying outside the window. Later, living in a seaside town where gulls were, unsurprisingly, common, I would be reminded of Bath. Moving again, years later, I would recall the seaside town as a place in which I heard gulls and was reminded of Bath. And so on. On a day when their flight paths seem higher than usual, their calls still sometimes bring back a long ago holiday in Wales, in a cottage set back from the cliff edge above the beach, where gulls would ride the currents of air and be flung high up above the wall at the end of the thin garden, laughing like maniacs.

So immediately and unmistakeably evoking the sea; yet now perhaps even more familiar in urban settings, certainly in parks and on rubbish tips. As a child when I asked about seagulls spotted on pavements or rooftops, I was told: ‘It’s rough at sea.’ That was the assumption: seagulls unable to find food at sea had been driven inland, to try their luck in the cities. Now, of course, there’s so much rubbish in the streets, smeared with sugar and salt and sauces, with chunks of rotting meat and fish, why would they bother to do an honest day’s work out at sea?

Always the gulls. Certainly with the poets, through whose work they wheel and wail endlessly. Jack Bevan’s translations of the Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who won the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, were published in the Penguin European Poets series in the mid-1960s (my copy’s worn but dourly resilient). Here’s ‘Again I Hear The Sea’

Quasimodo

(Salvatore Quasimodo)

Many nights now I have heard the sound of the sea
once more, lightly rising and falling on smooth beaches.
A voice’s echo shut away in the mind,
rising from time; and, too, this persistent
crying of gulls; perhaps of
tower birds that April
is tempting onto the plains. Once
you, with that voice, were near me;
and I wish now that there could come to you
also an echo memory of me,
like that dark ocean murmur.[1]

There was a period in bookselling when a certain kind of reader would buy a sort of starter pack: this would include Gibran’s The Prophet and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Then, as their reading muscles toughened, they’d move on to Trout Fishing in America and Siddhartha. And then – did they all train to be therapists or did it only seem so? Perhaps only the more disturbed ones.

Elizabeth-Smart

(Elizabeth Smart)

The poet George Barker published a novel, described somewhere as ‘tortuously symbolic’, called The Dead Seagull, which drew heavily on his relationship with the novelist and poet Elizabeth Smart. A paperback, published by Panther, I believe, with heavier perhaps silk coated paper and line drawings but this could be invention. I lent it to the poet Tony Lopez decades ago and didn’t see it again. That much is not invention. These poets…

A Roman amphitheatre
crumbling in bright sunlight

no christians or lions
only the brittle dried
body of a cat

He sits, halfway up the stalls
listening to the gulls
resting his eyes

listening to the sea, so sleepy
this damned heat and the flies

startled
by the fast train to Figueras
crashing through the arches[2]

William Carlos Williams observed, conscripted or devised some symbolically peaceable gulls:

And the next thing I say is this:
I saw an eagle once circling against the clouds
over one of our principal churches—
Easter, it was—a beautiful day!
three gulls came from above the river
and crossed slowly seaward!
Oh, I know you have your own hymns, I have heard them—
and because I knew they invoked some great protector
I could not be angry with you, no matter
how much they outraged true music—

You see, it is not necessary for us to leap at each other,
and, as I told you, in the end
the gulls moved seaward very quietly.[3]

John Masefield’s Billy had his own notions about them:

‘Goneys an’ gullies an’ all o’ the birds o’ the sea
They ain’t no birds, not really,’ said Billy the Dane.
‘Not mollies , nor gullies, nor goneys at all,’ said he,
‘But simply the sperrits of mariners livin’ again.’

[Goneys: albatrosses.
Gullies: seagulls.
Mollies: mollyhawks or fulmar petrels.][4]

Mariners living again. Some poetic sailors stay dead: like T. S. Eliot’s Phlebas, whose lapse of memory seems entirely reasonable in these circumstances, death having intervened:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

Eliot wrote a little gloomily to Ezra Pound, who was editing what began as ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ and ended as The Waste Land, cutting out long passages of Eliot’s draft, ‘Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???’ Pound replied: ‘I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more’n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is need ABSOlootly where he is. Must stay in.’[5]

Phlebas stayed in, ten lines salvaged from a great many more. And the forgotten gulls stayed in too. Hardly forgotten now, though, neither gulls nor Phlebas.

 
References

[1] Quasimodo: Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Jack Bevan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 80.

[2] Antony Lopez, Snapshots (London: Oasis Books, 1976), 22.

[3] William Carlos Williams, ‘Gulls’, The Collected Poems, Volume 1: 1900-1939, edited by A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1987), 67.

[4] John Masefield, ‘Sea-Change’, in The Puffin Book of Salt-Sea Verse, compiled by Charles Causley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 172.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts including the annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 143, 129.

Transports of Delight

Bus-376

On the way to Wells, I’m reminded of the bus ride we took on the Jurassic Coast service from Chideock to Lyme Regis last month. I ride on buses so rarely these days, mostly walking, occasionally driving, so had almost forgotten just how different the world looks from the upper deck of a bus. Simply, you see more, partly because of the slower speed but largely because of the height – and the frequency with which you stop, not only at traffic lights, in a queue of cars, but at bus stops, pulled tightly in to the side of the road, next to garden fences, house fronts, road signs, shops and cafés, peering into people’s lives in a way you can’t from a car or even a train. So, on the section of road I’d driven on scores of times, between Bristol and Yeovil, I’d noticed Featherbed Lane but had missed Sleep Lane and, worse, Gibbet Lane too. Passing the point where we used to gauge our progress by the first glimpse of the single wind turbine, in the weeks when we drove often to Glastonbury to see my mother in the hospital, I realised a bus top view made it visible for longer and from varying angles. Seeing a truncated version of it complicated my sense of its movement, so that it came to seem not unlike an acrobat tirelessly performing cartwheels.

So, four recent bus journeys. In every case, a failure to sit in the very front seats because these are always the first to be taken. But my clearest memory of a bus ride is precisely of sitting in that front seat and going, a little too fast, over a humpbacked bridge near Bath, so that I was facing vertiginously downwards for an abrupt, disorientating moment, my breath forced jerkily from my nose and mouth. J. R. Ackerley recalled visiting his sister Nancy in Worthing and going into one of the seaside cafés to order a cup of coffee that they didn’t need to drink. There they ‘talked of this and that – the gale that had raged on the south coast on Friday and Saturday and blown a bus full of people over a bridge’.[1] In my case, it wasn’t a gale, just a driver that had mistaken his route for Silverstone or Brands Hatch.

Ackerley_Aunt_EMF

(J. R. Ackerley with his aunt and E. M. Forster)

In those far-off days, I’d been working on a novel and that momentary, violent loss of control, of helplessness in the face of whatever happened next (and that vivid presentiment of the bus not righting itself but continuing to tip forward), the sense of ‘Too late now!’, like realising as the train pulls away from the station that you left the gas on, gave me a title: A Sense of Omission. Safely unpublished, of course. I see that even that far back, I loved a pun.

Tony Judt has the bus in equal second place: ‘I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.’[2] Today, after finding that the Prime Minister had found herself in a very hostile environment, I set off to collect an undelivered parcel from what seemed at times to be a galaxy far, far away, though I’d travelled there on foot. So the bus is in equal second place for me too: first place still goes to walking: stop whenever you want to, no traffic jams, fix your own timetable. Take back control, as they say.

 
References

[1] J. R. Ackerley, My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley, edited by Francis King (London: Hutchinson 1982), 69.

[2] Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (London: Heinemann, 2010), 66.

 

A word from the white rabbit

White-Rabbit

The Librarian and I take turns to swear at the television news, the scarcely credible nonsense unfurling across the screen, as the Prime Minister calls off the vote on her Brexit deal to give her time to ask for changes that the European Commission has already said are not on offer.  I confess I’ve lost all patience with ‘the will of the people’ and ‘defending democracy’ white noise. When ‘the will of the people’ involves one-quarter of the population and a little over one-third of the electorate; when ‘respecting the result of the referendum’ means respecting a referendum foolishly conceived by a lazy and complacent Prime Minister, moronically designed and tainted by blatant misrepresentation, malpractice and illegality, my affirmation is a little slow and reluctant. As for ‘defending democracy’: well, yes, I’m all for it – but I think that train may just have left the station.

And now the European court has ruled that the UK could cancel the whole Article 50 process without requiring the approval of the 27 other EU member states. Yes, all this could go away: Bobby Ewing could step out of the shower and we could still be a privileged – with our special deal, with all its opt-outs and rebates – and grown-up member of the European Union. There’s no time, apparently, to arrange another referendum before March when we’re scheduled to leave the EU, so I’d suggest a shortcut. Find someone sensible and canvas him or her. Shorter cut: ask me.

Lately, the only commentator on the Brexit shambles that I can actually engage with is Marina Hyde. Too many of the others seem to respond as though a country disembowelling itself but pausing every so often to argue about whether or not the knife is sharp enough is something to be rationally assessed. Hyde at least recognises and confronts the unremitting lunacy of the affair.

https://wwwtheguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/07/brexit-soap-opera-jacob-rees-mogg-nigel-farage

Wait – was that a white rabbit?

‘When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen’s off with her head’

yes, Grace,

‘Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head’

I am feeding it.

 

 

Fizz – or beer?

Moet

There’s a bottle of fizz in the fridge and discussions are ongoing about whether there’s any justification for opening it this evening. There are, after all, three bottles of beer sharing those chilled quarters. Pros and – what cons? Item: two successful trips to the Household Waste Recycling Centre yesterday to clear the pavement outside our house – and avoid possible reputational damage among the neighbours – of the stuff left after the recent installation of a new gas stove. Item: the Librarian finished painting the new shelves on Thursday and last night they were dry enough for me to spend two or three carefree hours filling them up. Are we there yet? Taken together, this seems a solid basis but maybe something more is needed to clinch it.

‘Hang ideas! They are tramps, vagabonds, knocking at the back-door of your mind’, Conrad wrote in Lord Jim. But wait – this encouraging noise was at the front door. The postman hands me a package. I scrabble at sticky tape and cardboard. Yes! Should I declare an interest? I’m tremendously interested.

Routledge-Companion small

The Routledge Research Companion to Ford Madox Ford is, as they say, ‘an invaluable resource for students and scholars in Ford Studies, in modernism, and in the literary world that Ford helped shape in the early years of the twentieth century.’ Is it expensive? Lord, yes. Still, more than two dozen contributors cover the entire range of Ford’s work, both fictional and non-fictional, and the relevant contextual and critical areas, including reception history, life-writing, literary histories, gender and comedy. And it has, after all, been coming for quite some time.

Fizz, then.

 

Plumbing metaphysics

THE-CONVERSION-OF-AN-OLD-FASHIONED-SCULLERY-TO-A-BATHROOM-1-CP0362

Heath Robinson (Via https://www.chrisbeetles.com/ )

‘Above all’, Lawrence Durrell once wrote, ‘the French recognize that love is a form of metaphysical enquiry. The English imagine it has something to do with the plumbing.’[1]

Durrell was centrally concerned with love—and with France and the French—while I, though always also concerned with love, have lately had plumbing forced peremptorily on my attention. Such things as angle seat wrenches, drain seal gaskets, flue baffles, flush balls, tailpieces, ball valves and stopcocks, are all mysterious to me. Sometimes I seem to know what I’m looking at but the familiarity is elusive and recedes as I approach. I see a faint parallel with our visit the other day to the marvellous Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.[2]

Anglo-Saxon-K

Apart from a lot of contextual information in different media, the main focus is on surviving artefacts: jewellery, weaponry, utensils but, above all, texts (its Latin root, ‘weaving’ very visible): exquisitely beautiful decorated manuscript pages of gospels, psalters, charters, letters, herbals, treatises, glossaries, of Boethius, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede, Alfred’s translations. All these in a profusion of languages: particularly Old English and Latin, Greek and Hebrew; and runic as well as Roman alphabets; but mention is also made along the way of Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scots-Gaelic. Some of these pages arouse a strange sensation as if seeing something through bodies of water, a flickering instability, outlines familiar enough to have you straining to make out details which – once made out – only baffle or disorientate again.

Apart from the installation of a new radiator, the other plumbing issue of past days manifested itself in a wet sock. Walking from the kitchen to the stairs, I felt a wetness underfoot. We currently own no pets. ‘The floor’s wet at the bottom of the stairs’, I remarked. ‘Oh no’, the Librarian replied, with the audible sense of impending doom that I thought I’d reserved to myself. Above my head, the ceiling was stained and seemed to bulge a little. Just the light, or lack of it, I thought, as drops landed on my upturned face. British Gas, bless them, run a 24-hour service. I called, around seven that morning, was advised to turn off the water at the mains (post-showers, post-filling jugs and saucepans) and an engineer was with me by half-past nine.

As it happened, I’d been reading Sarah Perry’s first – and very distinctive – novel, After Me Comes the Flood, its unsettling nature signalled at the outset by that ambiguous ‘after’, both in the sense of temporal sequence and in that of pursuit. ‘Après nous le déluge’, Madame de Pompadour, influential mistress and confidante of Louis XV, apparently said, Louis himself being the alleged author of the alternative, more regal version (‘après moi’). James Joyce’s limerick for his friend Eugene Jolas concluded: ‘Après mot, le déluge.’[3] Revolution of the word, indeed.

Pompadour
(François Boucher, Madame de Pompadour, Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Reminded by all this of Charles Tomlinson’s 1981 collection, The Flood, I glance down the list of contents in his New Collected Poems and notice just how many of those poems concern – or connect to – water. The title poem begins:

It was the night of the flood first took away
My trust in stone. Perfectly reconciled it lay
Together with water – and does so still –
In the hill-top conduits that feed into
Cisterns of stone, cisterns echoing
With a married murmur, as either finds
Its own true note in such a unison.
It rained for thirty days. Down chimneys
And through doors, the house filled up
With the roar of waters. The trees were bare,
With nothing to keep in the threat
And music of that climbing, chiming din
Now rivers ran where the streams once were.[4]

‘The Flood’ is placed near the end of the volume, followed only by ‘Severnside’, ‘In the Estuary’ and ‘The Epilogue’ – ‘a fugue of water/ Startled the ear and air with distances/ Around and under us, as if a flood/ Came pouring in from every quarter’. ‘The Flood’ is preceded by ‘The Littleton Whale’, written in memory of Charles Olson and unsurprisingly including canal, river, sea, wave, mariner, tide, sloop ­ and whale. Before that, ‘Barque Nomen’ (‘tides reshape the terrain’), ‘Instead of an Essay’, written for Donald Davie (‘bay’, ‘coast’, ‘island’, ‘sea’, ‘stream’, ‘tide’) and ‘On a May Night’ (after the prose of Leopardi’s journal), a coachman’s daughter ‘washing a platter’ and predicting rain, which falls towards the end of the poem – so I stop there to remark that, quite apart from the mastery displayed in the individual poems, Tomlinson, like Yeats and like Pound (his recent biographer, David Moody, pays this aspect of Pound’s work a good deal of attention), was an accomplished architect of volumes, a builder of books.

Swimming-Chenango-Lake

David Morley’s new selection of Charles Tomlinson’s poems is called Swimming Chenango Lake (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018) and opens with the poem that gives the volume its title (the same poem opened The Way of a World, published in 1969).

Winter will bar the swimmer soon.
He reads the water’s autumnal hesitations
A wealth of ways: it is jarred,
It is astir already despite its steadiness,
Where the first leaves at the first
Tremor of the morning air have dropped
Anticipating him,
launching their imprints
Outwards in eccentric, overlapping circles.

Tomlinson’s next volume was entitled Written on Water (1972). It begins, reasonably enough, with a poem called ‘On Water’.

‘On’, not ‘in’. ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ was the sentence that John Keats asked Joseph Severn to have inscribed on his gravestone. ‘On’, two letters, carries at least two meanings. Alluding to the familiar notion of ships’ keels ploughing the waves, the poem suggests rather that:

‘Furrow’ is inexact:
no ship could be
converted to a plough
travelling this vitreous ebony:

seal it in sea-caves and
you cannot still it:
image on image bends
where half-lights fill it

with illegible depths
and lucid passages,
bestiary of stones,
book without pages:

and yet it confers
as much as it denies:
we are orphaned and fathered
by such solid vacancies:

I hear again the quiet eloquence of that colon (Pound’s Canto 1 ends ‘So that:’ and Canto 17 seems to continue this by beginning ‘So that the vines burst from my fingers’) and, come to think of it, the others in this short poem, functioning as more than line-endings. Incitements to thought, perhaps. Two exact rhymes, then two sight-rhymes (‘passages’/’pages’, ‘denies’, ‘vacancies’) and, again, the dialogue of stone and water. And other dialogues: ‘confers’ and ‘denies’, ‘orphaned’ and ‘fathered’ – finally, that ‘solid vacancies’, wonderful.

 
References

[1] ‘Letting the Book Breathe by Itself’, quoted by Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), 508.

[2] The catalogue is as impressive as you’d expect: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story (London: The British Library, 2018).

[3] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 587.

[4] Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), 361. All other poems quoted are from this edition. Tomlinson was thoroughly familiar with the writings of Adrian Stokes, ‘Part One’ of whose Stones of Rimini is called ‘Stone and Water’: water Stokes terms ‘the dominant natural carving force’: The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 31.

The teeth of the evidence – or the evidence of teeth

Fear-and-Loathing . Toorenvliet, Jacob, c.1635-1719; The Dentist

(Hunter Thompson; Jacob Toorenvliet, The Dentist: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries)

‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”’

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, of course. And against this, what? ‘We were somewhere around Bridport when the toothache took hold.’ No. But the pain was real, one hundred per cent genuine pain; I gather that Thompson’s account was, say, seventy-five per cent actual, the rest invention. Still, that particular seventy-five is scary enough.

‘Why don’t you’, the Librarian inquires mildly, ‘just go to the dentist?’ Ah yes. There are subtle undercurrents here. On the phone to the Librarian’s mum, I ask: ‘How’s your tooth?’ ‘Quiet at the moment. How’s yours?’ ‘The same. Are you going to the dentist?’ ‘Do I want to disturb it? Won’t that just stir it up? Are you going?’ ‘Not sure yet.’ Yes. Why don’t you just . . . ?

I fleetingly recall an entry in Francis Kilvert’s diary about a dentist called Gaine and his discovery that a combination of concentrated carbolic acid and arsenious acid ‘will destroy the nerve almost entirely without pain.’[1] So much acid and no pain – almost? It sounds agonisingly unlikely. My recent dental visits have, in fact, been pretty uneventful. But teeth – a serious business. Probably the worst pain I remember is tooth-related: a mere bagatelle, most women would think, familiar as they are with chronic period pains, let alone the pains of childbirth, but I’m not too keen to go through it again.

Teeth bulked large in Ford Madox Ford’s life. In August 1911, he had ‘an awful week of dentistry’ in Paris and came to meet Violet Hunt at the Gare du Nord, ‘toothless and feckless’. He had had ‘four teeth cut one morning without gas. The dentist said he must have a week or ten days rest before beginning the lower jaw.’[2] Five years later, in March 1917, here is Ford’s friend Ezra Pound, writing to Alice Corbin Henderson: ‘Ford has been in hospital. All we know for certain is that his false teeth fell out.?? Ague or shell shock.???’[3]

Pound, teeth and Englishmen. ‘NO englishman is ever sufficiently evolved to stand civility’, he wrote to Wyndham Lewis in March 1939, when some encounter had clearly put him in a major snit. ‘KICK the bastards in the jaw FIRST.’ Commenting on this in the piece he wrote for a 1950 collection of essays assembled by Peter Russell, Lewis recalled it as: ‘There’s only one thing to do with an Englishman—kick him in the teeth’. Lewis explained that it concerned ‘a young English bibliophile’ he had sent to Rapallo’, adding that Pound’s patience ‘must have been sorely tried.’[4]

Lewis, Wyndham, 1882-1957; Mr Wyndham Lewis as 'Tyro'

(‘Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro’, Ferens Art Gallery © Estate of Mrs G. A. Wyndham Lewis; The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust)

Also tooth-related was ‘one of the great tragedies’ of Ford’s life, which occurred just before the First World War, when Ford was in Germany with the Liberal politician Charles Masterman and his wife. The landlord of the Hotel zur Post in Trêves, as a reward for having brought him ‘a British Excellency’, presented Ford with a bottle of 1813 brandy. ‘In the Mosel there is a stone that is only uncovered in years of great drought – which are years of glorious vintages. On such years they chain a barrel of brandy to that stone. When it is again uncovered they remove the old barrel and chain on a new one. That stone had not been uncovered since 1813. The bottle that the host gave me had been filled from the 1813 barrel.’ During the night, Masterman had toothache. ‘He poured by degrees the whole of that 1813 brandy into his mouth and spat it out again. By ringing the bell he could have procured a bottle of 1913 brandy for one franc fifty.’[5]

But then, as early as the turn of the century, teeth were an issue. When Joseph Conrad and Ford were collaborating on the novel that became The Inheritors and Conrad reluctantly attended to a female character—a part of what he usually termed ‘Ford’s women’—to the extent of granting her ‘good hair, good eyes and some charm’, it was ‘only with difficulty’, Ford recalled, ‘that he was restrained from adding good teeth to the catalogue. “Why not good teeth? Good teeth in a woman are part of her charm. Think of when she laughs. You would not have her not have good teeth. They are a sign of health. Your damn woman has to be healthy, doesn’t she?”’[6] By way of compensation, perhaps, the book does contain a dramatic critic who ‘furtively took a set of false teeth out of his waistcoat pocket; wiped them with a bandanna handkerchief, and inserted them in his mouth.’[7]

‘Do you know what Maupassant said about England?’, Colette wrote to Léopold Marchand in 1921, ‘“Too many toothbrushes and not enough bidets!”’[8] About bidets he was surely right but how many toothbrushes is ‘too many’?

Good night. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.

 

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969): II, 100.

[2] See Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 346. And see Alan Judd, Ford Madox Ford (London: Collins, 1990), 388: ‘Never for long could he forget those teeth that Violet had paid for.’

[3] The Letters of Ezra Pound to Alice Corbin Henderson, edited by Ira B. Nadel (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 201.

[4] Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, edited by Timothy Materer (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 208 and n.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 425.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 144.

[7] Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 31.

[8] Colette, Letters from Colette, selected and translated by Robert Phelps (London: Virago Press, 1982), 63.

Remembering to forget

Fuseli-night_hag

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

‘Towards morning I was possessed by a kind of nightmare; I felt the fiend’s grasp in my neck and could not free myself from it; groans and cries rang in my ears. My father, who was watching over me, perceiving my restlessness, awoke me; the dashing waves were around, the cloudy sky above, the fiend was not here: a sense of security, a feeling that a truce was established between the present hour and the irresistible, disastrous future imparted to me a kind of calm forgetfulness of which the human mind is by its structure peculiarly susceptible.’[1]

A ‘calm forgetfulness’ (I lightly pass over that ‘irresistible, disastrous future’, on the fish-in-a-barrel principle) – in 1938-39, Henry Green was clear about the dangers of forgetting, of ageing and acceptance: ‘As I write now a war, or the threat of war, while still threatening seems more remote; a change of wind and the boat is blown in, there is nothing to do but tie up and call it a day. That is the pity of sobering down to middle age, there must be a threat to one’s skin to wake what is left of things remembered into things to die with. The crime is to forget.’[2]

Still, we know well enough the dangers, if not the crimes and misdemeanours, of selective remembering too. We’ve just passed the centenary of the end of the Great War Armistice and, as John Greening remarked recently in the TLS, ‘After four years of remembering the First World War, remembrance itself is being commemorated.’[3] There has been a lot of attention rightly paid to personal stories, men surviving only in blurry photographs or in fragmentary family histories. Meanwhile, the arguments about what actually brought the war about, the competence of various military leaders, the emergence and maintenance of myths that drive nations into further wars or into disastrous political decisions, continue and will continue.

In John Le Carré’s novel, A Most Wanted Man, Dr Abdullah remarks: ‘“That’s one of the great problems of the modern world, you know. Forgetting. The victim never forgets. Ask an Irishman what the English did to him in 1920 and he’ll tell you the day of the month and the time and the name of every man they killed. Ask an Iranian what the English did to him in 1953 and he’ll tell you. His child will tell you. His grandchild will tell you. And when he has one, his great-grandchild will tell you too. But ask an Englishman—?” He flung up his hands in mock ignorance. “If he ever knew, he has forgotten.”’[4]

‘The victim never forgets.’ Indeed. But who is the victim? In earlier catastrophes, from the Armenian genocide through Soviet purges to the Holocaust, the identity of the victims was not in doubt. But now? Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Kashmir, Ukraine. Everyone claims victimhood. In some countries, angry white men claim that the only real victims are angry white men. The only inevitability is that innocent civilians, particularly women and children, will continue to bear the brunt of murderous violence and aggression.

opium-eater_quincey

And sometimes, the need to forget, at least for a while, is more urgent, more desperate, than the need to remember. ‘Life’, Balzac wrote, ‘cannot go on without a great a deal of forgetting.’[5] Julia Blackburn remarks that, ‘sometimes we need to remember things because only then can we forget’,[6] while, in a similar vein, the critic Frank Kermode observed that, ‘in the ordinary course of his written narrative, as of the interminable day-to-day account he gives himself of himself, the autobiographer will remember only in order to forget what he cannot bear to remember.’[7]

How easy is it to forget? Is it subject to the usual vagaries of the human mind and will – we unfailingly remember what we seek to forget while what we urgently need to remember falls immediately away? ‘Of this, at least, I feel assured’, Thomas De Quincey firmly asserted, ‘that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind; a thousand accidents may, and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil — and that they are waiting to be revealed, when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.’[8]

Yes: you may think you’ve forgotten – but it’s in there somewhere. . .

 
References

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, in Three Gothic Novels, edited by Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 455.

[2] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 50.

[3] John Greening, ‘Pity War Distilled: Poetry and the act of remembering’ (review of three recent books), Times Literary Supplement No. 6032 (9 November 2018), 9.

[4] John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2009), 341.

[5] Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Marion Ayton Crawford (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 442.

[6] Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths: Journeys In and Around an Italian Mountain Village (London: Jonathan Cape, 2011), 193.

[7] Frank Kermode, Not Entitled: A Memoir (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 156.

[8] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, edited by Alethea Hayter (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971), 104.